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Alabama Sheriff Capitulates to ACLU in Challenge to Denial of Attorney Visits

The ACLU of Alabama has reached a settlement that allows its staff members to have consultation visits with prisoners at the Fayette County Jail (FCJ). The settlement was reached within six weeks after the ACLU sued the county.

The ACLU had been investigating allegations of serious violations of detainees’ constitutional rights at county jails across Alabama. Its staff was gathering information through correspondence with detainees and former detainees, and by face-to-face interviews at jails.

Attempts to visit with prisoners at the FCJ were met with resistance by jail staff. Between July 2010 and January 2011, ACLU employees were refused opportunities to meet with two prisoners on multiple occasions.

FCJ detainee Felix Robinson contacted the ACLU by letter in May 2010 to request that he discuss with ACLU staff conditions at the jail. ACLU law fellow Jared Shepherd called the FCJ to schedule a visit with Robinson. However, he was advised that he could not visit with detainees unless he was on their visitation list or provided proof that he was the detainee’s attorney of record. Sheriff Rodney Ingle did not respond to an ACLU letter concerning the matter.

ACLU legal director Allison Neal met similar resistance when trying to visit with FCJ detainee James Marion Tidwell in November 2010. Tidwell had made two efforts to contact the ACLU and Shepherd, and he only came to the ACLU’s attention when a third party contacted the organization on his behalf.

Neal and Shepherd made several attempts to visit detainees by personally arriving at the jail in December. They were told Tidwell had been transferred to a state prison. They were also turned away upon trying to see Robinson, on the basis that “the schedule was full.”

Once again, Sheriff Ingle did not reply to an ACLU letter regarding the lack of access to FCJ prisoners. A lawsuit that sought to vindicate the ACLU and Neal’s rights under the First Amendment to speak with detainees seeking legal representation was filed on March 9, 2011. Ingle quickly capitulated, settling the case the following month.

The settlement provides that visitation arrangements will be made between the ACLU and a designated FCJ staff member. It establishes that visits will be made available seven days a week, with no time limit for such visits. Visitation will be allowed without ACLU staff needing to be on a detainee’s visit list and the ACLU may meet with any prisoner who requests its assistance. The settlement also provides that FCJ staff will not interfere with mail sent by prisoners to the ACLU.

Detainees will not be forced to visit with the ACLU, but if FCJ staff claims that a prisoner refuses a visit, the ACLU may request the refusal in writing. Further, jail staff may not threaten or take retaliatory action against detainees who request the ACLU’s assistance. Both parties agreed to bear their own attorney fees and costs. See: ACLU v. Ingle, U.S.D.C. (N.D. Ala.), Case No. 6:11-cv-00913-PWG.

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Related legal case

ACLU v. Ingle