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Postcard-Only Mail Policy Enjoined at Colorado Jail

On December 20, 2010, Chief U.S. District Court Judge Wiley Y. Daniel issued a preliminary injunction against a postcard-only mail policy instituted at the El Paso County Jail in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

The injunction resulted from a class-action lawsuit filed by a group of El Paso County prisoners who alleged that the jail’s policy of restricting outgoing correspondence to 4” x 6” postcards violated their rights under the First and Fourteenth Amendments and Colorado’s Constitution.

The El Paso County Jail’s postcard-only policy is part of an increasing trend by jails across the country to limit prisoner correspondence. [See: PLN, Nov. 2010, p.22]. Jail officials claim that restricting prisoners to postcards cuts down on contraband and reduces staff time in processing incoming mail.

The infamous Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County, Arizona implemented the first postcard-only policy, which withstood a legal challenge in a prisoner’s pro se lawsuit on Sept. 29, 2009. The court held in that case that jail officials had “shown that the mail policy is reasonably related to legitimate penological objectives.” See: Covell v. Arpaio, U.S.D.C. (D. Ariz.), Case No. 2:07-cv-02453-PHX-DGC. This is a dubious ruling since it is unlikely that a pro se prisoner litigant can muster the resources to conduct discovery which is generally needed to win these censorship cases.
The El Paso County Jail’s mail policy limits prisoners to “less writing space than is available in a two or three-page, double-sided letter,” according to a stipulation entered into by the parties.

The postcard-only policy also bars prisoners from enclosing drawings, newspaper or magazine clippings, religious literature or writings they may want to share with their correspondents.

Additionally, because prisoners are prohibited from using envelopes, the parties stipulated that prisoners cannot “write a letter-to-the-editor, seek spiritual guidance from clergy, provide information to investigative reporters, or submit their own writing to such periodicals as the Colorado Springs Independent or Prison Legal News.”

El Paso County decided to stipulate to the injunction days before a hearing was scheduled on the plaintiffs’ motion for a preliminary injunction.

The injunction bars El Paso County from enforcing its “postcard-only policy, or any other policy that limits prisoners’ outgoing mail to postcards.” Further, the injunction requires the jail to immediately “re-supply [its] inventory of paper and envelopes for use by prisoners for outgoing correspondence.”

The parties subsequently agreed to a settlement in which the district court would issue a permanent injunction against the postcard-only policy at the jail, and the plaintiffs’ attorneys, from the ACLU of Colorado and the ACLU National Prison Project, would receive $60,000 in fees and costs. The settlement was approved on June 7, 2011. See: Martinez v. Maketa, U.S.D.C. (D. Col.), Case No. 1:10-cv-02242-WYD-KLM.

The injunction and settlement in the suit against the El Paso County Jail’s postcard-only policy is a first. Lawsuits challenging similar policies in other jurisdictions remain pending. PLN recently filed suit against a jail in Livingston County, Michigan over a postcard-only policy that resulted in the censorship of PLN’s monthly publication, correspondence and book orders. [See: PLN, Sept. 2011, p.19].

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Related legal case

Martinez v. Maketa