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PLN Invalidates Oregon Jail's Postcard-Only Policy; Magazine Ban and Rejection

On April 24, 2013, an Oregon federal court granted Prison Legal News (PLN) an injunction, permanently enjoining an Oregon jail's postcard-only policy. It also declared that jail magazine ban and rejection notice and appeal policies violated the First and Fourteenth Amendments.

Known for prisoner abuse, controversial Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio is "credited" with sparking a nationwide trend of jail "postcard-only" policies, prohibiting all incoming or outgoing prisoner mail, except postcards.

A postcard-only policy presentation was offered at a 2009 conference of the Oregon State Sheriffs' Association. Proponents claimed that the policies had survived legal challenges in other states.

By January 2010, 13 of Oregon's 36 county jails had adopted postcard-only policies. On March 3, 2010, the Columbia County Jail (CCJ) joined the movement. Under that policy, CCJ "returned or failed to deliver dozens of PLN publications mailed to inmates, including PLN's journal, info packs, subscription renewal packs, and fundraising appeals." Each rejected item was stamped: "As of April 1, 2010 The Columbia County Jail ONLY ACCEPTS POSTCARDS" and "This applies to ALL incoming and outgoing mail."

As we've previously reported, we brought federal suit on January 13, 2012, challenging CCJ's postcard-only; magazine ban; and mail rejection notice and appeal policies. (PLN, March 2013, p. 9). We also sought a preliminary injunction.

On May 29, 2012, United States District Court Judge Michael H. Simon granted a preliminary injunction, enjoining CCJ's enforcement of its postcard-only policy. See PLN v. Columbia County, 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 74030 (D. Or. 2012).

CCJ immediately eliminated its postcard-only policy and other Oregon jails quickly joined them. On July 1, 2012, the Marion County Jail in Salem, Oregon, responded to the PLN ruling by repealing its January 2010 postcard-only policy and allowing letters again, according to Don Thomson, Marion County Sheriff's Spokesman.

Judge Simon denied PLN's summary judgment motions, set a trial date and bifurcated the case to resolve liability and equitable relief claims in one trial and compensatory and punitive damages in a second trial.

A liability bench trial was held on February 6-8, 2013, and the Court took the matter under advisement. On April 24, 2013, Judge Simon issued a 46-page opinion, finding Defendants liable and granting PLN equitable relief.

Applying the deferential reasonable relationship standard of Turner v. Salley, 482 U.S. 78 (1987), the Court found that two of the three justifications offered for the policy – security and efficiency – "are legitimate penological objectives," but the third – standardizing procedures with other sheriffs' offices – is not.

"In the absence of evidence demonstrating an inmate mail security problem, and without credible explanation of why a postcard-only policy is more effective at preventing the introduction of contraband than opening envelopes and inspecting their contents," the Court held "the postcard-only policy not rationally related to enhancing jail security." Rather, it "was a solution in search of a problem."


The policy also did not enhance efficiency, given Defendants' admission that it takes "only a few seconds" longer to open and inspect an envelope and CCJ processed only 35-37 pieces of mail a day. At best, the policy saved just a few minutes each day, the Court found.

Although failing the first Turner factor was the beginning and end of the analysis, the Court examined the remaining factors, finding that the second factor was neutral, but the third and fourth factors also support a conclusion "that Defendants' postcard-only policy is not reasonably related to legitimate penological objectives."

CCJ did not have a written policy prohibiting magazines, but jail staff understood that magazines were not allowed and refused to deliver them. The Court agreed with PLN that CCJ had a policy and custom of prohibiting magazines, in violation of the First Amendment.

The Court also concluded that CCJ had a policy and custom of failing to provide notice and an opportunity to appeal mail rejection decisions, violating the Fourteenth Amendment rights of PLN, prisoners and their correspondents.

Applying eBay Inc v. MercExchange, L.L.C., 547 U.S. 388 (2006), the Court permanently enjoined enforcement of CCJ's postcard-only policy. Although the eBay factors also supported permanently enjoining the magazine and notice policies, the Court declined to do so because "Defendants have expressed a credible willingness to comply with the law."

Instead, the Court granted declaratory relief, to "clarify the degree of constitutional protection that must be afforded to inmate mail, and, . . . provide guideposts to Defendants in the event they wish to further amend their" policies. See: PLN v. Columbia County, 3:12-cv-00071- SI (D. Or. 4/24/13).

Assuming CCJ refuses to settle, a second trial will begin in 2013, to resolve our compensatory and punitive damage claims.

A stellar team of attorneys represent us in this action, including: Jesse Wing and Katherine C. Chamberlain of of Macdonald, Hoague & Bayless, in Seattle, Washington; Marc D. Blackman, of Ransom & Blackman, L.L.P., in Portland, Oregon; and Lance Weber, General Counsel at the Human Rights Defense Center Litigation Project.

Sources: The Oregonian, The Statesman Journal

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Related legal case

PLN v. Columbia County