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Settlement, Judgment End Postcard-only Policies at Two Kansas Jails

A settlement agreement was reached in a class-action lawsuit challenging a postcard-only mail policy at Kansas’ Wyandotte County Adult Detention Center (WCADC), while a federal district court awarded damages to a pro se prisoner challenging a similar policy at a jail in Johnson County.

The settlement involving WCADC provides that the Sheriff of Wyandotte County will amend jail policies to rescind the postcard-only restriction and allow prisoners to send and receive non-privileged correspondence in envelopes.

The new policy provides there is no volume restriction on the correspondence a prisoner may receive. It does, however, restrict the length of envelope correspondence “to one (1) piece of paper, front and back, measuring at least 7.5 inches wide by at least 10.5 inches tall.” Indigent prisoners must be provided materials and postage to send at least two pieces of non-privileged correspondence and two pieces of privileged correspondence per week.

The settlement agreement did not restrict the jail’s authority to regulate the content of correspondence, whether in envelopes or postcards. It also provided for an award of $25,000 in attorney fees to class counsel; no monetary damages were sought. The class was represented by attorneys with the ACLU Foundation of Kansas and the Social Justice Law Collective.

“Writing private letters is important to inmates and their friends and families because it allows them to stay connected and to express – at length and in detail – their private concerns about family relationships, health problems, and financial issues, among other things,” Doug Bonney, Legal Director of the ACLU Foundation of Kansas, said when the suit was filed. “If this policy had been in place in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. could not have sent his now famous letter from the Birmingham Jail. This postcard-only policy punishes inmates as well as their friends and family for no good purpose.”

The district court overseeing the litigation approved the settlement provisions on February 20, 2015. See: Jackson v. Ash, U.S.D.C. (D. Kan.), Case No. 2:13-cv-02504-EFM-JPO.

Meanwhile, another Kansas federal district court held a postcard-only policy at the Johnson County Adult Detention Center (JCADC) violated the First Amendment, and awarded $200 in damages.

JCADC pretrial detainee Nicholas A. Cox filed a civil rights action in 2012 alleging four claims for relief. The parties moved for summary judgment after a period of discovery.

In count three, Cox challenged the incoming mail policy at the jail, which was changed in 2009. The new policy provided that only postcards, privileged mail and preapproved letters would be accepted for incoming mail. Privileged mail was defined as “mail received from licensed attorneys.” Any incoming non-privileged mail in violation of the policy was returned to the sender without notice to the detainee, but an explanation of the rejection was provided; the explanation did not list an address for the sender.

As a result of this policy, jail staff returned four letters sent to Cox by the Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services, the Salvation Army, the Prison Activist Resource Center and Mietler Consulting. Cox argued the policy was unreasonable, as a small postcard severely limits written communication; further, religious groups, government agencies and other organizations that reach out to prisoners lack the resources to transfer information on a pamphlet, handout or pre-formatted material to the confines of a postcard. He also noted the policy restricted communication with prisoners’ family members and friends.

The court found ten federal district courts had analyzed postcard-only policies. Of those, four found the policies constitutional and two found them unconstitutional. The two cases where the policy was invalidated had been filed by PLN. The postcard-only policy at the JCADC was revoked in November 2013 while Cox’s lawsuit was pending.

The district court held there was no “credible explanation of how the postcard-only policy is more effective at preventing the introduction of contraband than the former policy of opening envelopes and inspecting the contents for contraband.” When comparing the postcard-only policy to the former policy of subjecting incoming mail to a routine, industry-standard inspection, “the rational relationship between the postcard-only policy and enhancing security dissolves.”

The defendants countered that the policy resulted in more efficient jail management. While the court found that was an appropriate factor to consider, there was no evidence to support it. The court noted that “[w]hile the policy would reduce the amount of mail that would need to be opened and inspected, more staff time would be required to prepare the notices for the mail returned or rejected under the policy.”

In finding there were no alternative means to exercise the right to communicate, the court held the policy “inhibits rehabilitation” by deterring persons from writing about personal and family matters, which can damage close relationships. Forcing the JCADC to accommodate prisoners’ rights by reverting to its old mail policy, the district court found, would have little “ripple effect” on staff and detainees. The court noted there were no other ready alternatives available, and that other prison systems “allow letter mail without compromising security.”

In a September 29, 2014 order, the district court granted Cox summary judgment on his challenge to the jail’s postcard-only policy and set his damages claim for trial. It also set for trial his retaliation claim for filing multiple grievances related to a kosher diet. Other claims related to cross-gender camera surveillance and nighttime recreation resulted in a grant of summary judgment to the defendants.

The case proceeded to a bench trial on March 9, 2015 with Cox representing himself, and final judgment was entered in October 2015. The district court held that Cox had failed to prove his First Amendment retaliation claim for filing grievances. With respect to damages for being subjected to the postcard-only mail policy while incarcerated at JCADC, the court determined that Cox had suffered actual damages and awarded him $50 for each of the four letters that were rejected, totaling $200. His request for nominal damages was denied. Cox has since appealed the judgment and his appeal remains pending. See: Cox v. Denning, U.S.D.C. (D. Kan.), Case No. 2:12-cv-02571-DJW.  

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Related legal cases

Jackson v. Ash

Cox v. Denning