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Oregon ACLU Sues Jail over Mail Policy; County Quickly Capitulates

The American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon filed a federal lawsuit against a county jail in June 2012, challenging a policy that prevented prisoners from receiving ACLU correspondence. County officials quickly agreed to change the policy and the suit was resolved within four months.

As previously reported in PLN, the Jackson County Jail in Medford, Oregon was one of numerous jails nationwide to implement postcard-only prisoner mail policies in recent years. [See: PLN, Nov. 2010, p.22]. Under such policies, “legal mail” is the only type of letter correspondence that prisoners are allowed to receive.

Following numerous complaints by prisoners, in March 2009 the Oregon ACLU sent a first round of several surveys to detainees at the Jackson County Jail, inquiring about their treatment and living conditions. The purpose of the surveys was to help ACLU lawyers understand conditions at the jail and to ensure that prisoners’ rights were not being violated. The ACLU mailings also informed prisoners about their legal rights and made them aware of free legal services.

The survey mailings were clearly marked “Legal Mail,” but jail officials opened and read them outside the presence of the prisoners they were sent to. Then, in 2010, the jail began rejecting ACLU correspondence altogether.

When ACLU attorneys asked why the organization’s mail was being rejected, jail officials said the correspondence was prohibited by a December 27, 2010 amendment to the county’s privileged mail policy.

“On or about March 28, 2012,” according to the lawsuit, “the jail informed the ACLU that its mail policy ... did not classify correspondence from the ACLU as either ‘privileged communications’ or ‘acceptable non-privileged incoming mail.’”

Jackson County Sheriff Mike Winters, named as a defendant, confirmed the allegations in the suit and declared that the ACLU’s letters did not qualify as protected correspondence. “It’s not legal mail,” he stated through spokeswoman Andrea Carlson. Since the ACLU’s correspondence was not considered legal mail under the jail’s new policy, the organization was restricted to communicating with prisoners by postcard.

“By barring the ACLU from sending legal mail to inmates in an envelope, the jail makes substantive legal communication with inmates nearly impossible,” the suit alleged. “Without envelopes, the ACLU cannot meet its ethical duty to maintain secrets and confidences of potential clients.”

The jail’s policy harmed prisoners by preventing the organization’s attorneys from communicating with them, according to ACLU of Oregon Legal Director Kevin Diaz. “Oftentimes they send us requests for help, and we should be able to respond to those requests,” Diaz stated. “People are unable to get legal help and advice when they most need it.”

Apparently recognizing that it was fighting a losing battle, the county decided to cut its losses. On June 21, 2012, the Medford Mail Tribune quoted a jail spokeswoman as saying that ACLU correspondence could again be sent as legal mail and would be opened by guards only in the prisoners’ presence.

The lawsuit was dismissed on October 19, 2012 by agreement of the parties after the Jackson County Jail adopted a new mail policy that discarded the postcard-only rule. The county further agreed to recognize “that the ACLU, in its capacity as a public interest advocacy organization and in furtherance of its civil liberties objectives, has certain rights to regular communications with inmates, including non-privileged communications using regular envelopes and stationary,” and agreed not to “intentionally impede the rights of the ACLU to communicate with inmates.” The ACLU, for its part, stipulated that it would “only identify correspondence as ‘legal mail’ that the ACLU reasonably believes contains confidential communications intended for inmates.”

Both the county and the ACLU agreed to cover their own attorney fees and costs. See: ACLU v. Jackson County, U.S.D.C. (D. Ore.), Case No. 1:12-cv-01007-CL.

Postcard-only policies adopted by county jails have been challenged in a number of jurisdictions, including by PLN, with a high rate of success. [See: PLN, Nov. 2012, p.32; Jan. 2012, p.30; Nov. 2011, p.20; Oct. 2011, pp.33, 36; Sept. 2011, p.19].

In January 2012, Prison Legal News filed a federal lawsuit challenging a postcard-only prisoner mail policy at Oregon’s Columbia County Jail. On May 29, 2012, U.S. District Court Judge Michael H. Simon granted PLN’s motion for a preliminary injunction, requiring the county to cease enforcement of its postcard-only policy.

“The postcard-only mail policy drastically restricts an inmate’s ability to communicate with the outside world,” Judge Simon wrote. “It prevents an inmate’s family from sending items such as photographs, children’s report cards and drawings, and copies of bills, doctor reports, and spiritual and religious tracts. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the postcard-only mail policy creates a hurdle to thoughtful and constructive written communication between an inmate and his or her unincarcerated family and friends.”

A bench trial was held in February 2013, and the case is currently pending supplemental briefing and a potential jury trial on damages. We will report the outcome in a future issue of PLN. See: Prison Legal News v. Columbia County, U.S.D.C. (D. Ore.), Case No. 3:12-cv-00071-SI.

Additional sources: The Oregonian, Medford Mail Tribune, Portland Tribune

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Related legal cases

Prison Legal News v. Columbia County

ACLU v. Jackson County