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Florida Jail Abandons Postcard-Only Mail Policy, Pays Prisoners’ Attorney Fees

In February 2012, a Florida U.S. District Court approved a consent decree that settled a civil rights action challenging a postcard-only mail policy at the Santa Rosa County Jail (SRCJ). As a result of the settlement, prisoners are no longer restricted to postcards and can send and receive an unlimited number of regular letters. Further, the county has to pay attorney fees and costs to the prisoners’ counsel.

The ACLU of Florida and the Florida Justice Institute (FJI) filed the lawsuit in September 2010 on behalf of prisoners at the jail, alleging that the SRCJ’s policy of restricting prisoners’ ability to communicate with their families and friends by limiting their mail to short, publicly viewable messages on postcards was a violation of their First Amendment right to free speech. The mail policy, the ACLU and FJI argued, was the paper equivalent of requiring prisoners to communicate by “tweet” (i.e., very short messages).

“Under a postcard-only policy, Martin Luther King could not have sent his famous letter from the Birmingham Jail in 1963,” noted Benjamin Stevenson, staff attorney for the ACLU of Florida. “It’s not just about a specific inmate being unable to communicate – everyone suffers when people can’t share ideas.”

The postcard-only policy also created an obstacle to helping prisoners reintegrate back into society by preventing them from maintaining close ties with their families and friends on the outside. “Simply because someone is in jail doesn’t mean they cease to be part of their family,” said FJI Executive Director Randall C. Berg, Jr. “Yet, this postcard-only policy forced them to choose between writing everything in a very public and abbreviated form or writing nothing at all.”

The settlement was approved on February 13, 2012 after the district court had previously denied the county’s motion to dismiss the case. In addition to abandoning its postcard-only policy, the SRCJ agreed to provide writing materials to indigent prisoners and pay $135,000 in fees and costs to the ACLU and FJI attorneys.

“Today’s ruling should be a clear sign that limiting or restricting the speech of people in jail ... is illegal, will be challenged, and the costs can be significant,” said Stevenson. “It’s equally important to remember that free speech rights work both ways – the government can’t restrict your right to speak to others or restrict the way you receive information.” See: Hamilton v. Hall, U.S.D.C. (N.D. Fla.), Case No. 3:10-cv-00355-MCR-EMT.

A number of other jail postcard-only mail policies have been successfully challenged in other jurisdictions, including by Prison Legal News. [See, e.g., PLN, Jan. 2012, p.30; Nov. 2011, p.20; Oct. 2011, p.33].

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Related legal case

Hamilton v. Hall