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Settlement Reached in Nevada "Postcard-Only" Lawsuit

In June 2016, less than three months after a United States magistrate judge sitting in the federal district court in Nevada issued a Report and Recommendation advising that defendants' motion for summary judgment should be denied, the parties in a suit aimed at reversing a Carson City jail's "postcard-only' mail policy was settled.

Derek Kirk, who was incarcerated at the Carson City Sheriff's Detention Facility (CCDF) before being transferred to state prison, filed a complaint in 2013 challenging CCDF's policy limiting prisoners' incoming and outgoing mail to 4" x 6" postcards. Under that policy, prisoners must buy the postcards from the jail commissary, and any mail received that isn't a postcard is placed in the prisoner's property to be given to him or her upon release.

In his complaint Kirk noted that his family sent him numerous pieces of mail -- including educational materials, photographs, a Bible, and a school report card -- for which he never received notice and the items were not returned to the sender. Kirk's suit sought declaratory and injunctive relief, as well as compensatory and punitive damages for the First Amendment free speech infringement the policy cause to him and his family.

The CCDF defendants moved for summary judgment on two grounds: (1) that the postcard-only policy was constitutional under the Turner v. Safley test (see 482 U.S. 78 (1997)), and (2) Kirk's individual capacity claims against two named defendants were barred by qualified immunity.

The magistrate found that CCDF "failed to persuade the Court that [its] policy is not arbitrary or irrational." In doing so the court brushed aside CCDF's argument that allowing only postcards reduces contraband and frees up staff for other "security assignments."

"To the extent that contraband may be contained within an envelope, or within a letter's multiple folded pages, [CCDFN makes] no attempt to explain why a postcard-only policy is more effective at preventing contraband than opening envelopes and inspecting their contents," the magistrate wrote.

The court also said that little-to-no resources or staff time would be saved by the policy because given the limited writing space on a postcard, it is reasonable to believe the policy would encourage an increase in the volume of mail that must be inspected each day, "and offset the minutes saved by prohibiting letters."

Kirk said that he was inspired to filed this lawsuit when, after he grieved the issue, a jail captain told him "Your wife can describe what your newborn baby looks like on a post-card [sic] and Jesus can wait until you get out of jail."

The Report and Recommendation, which affirmed the grant of summary judgment to the individual defendants because there was no prior holding in that district that a postcard-only policy was unlawful, was filed March 22, 2016, and the parties settled the case for an undisclosed amount in June. Documents provided to PLN redacted the amount of the settlement, but CCDF's postcard-only policy is now a thing of the past. See: Kirk v. Carson City, et al., No. 3:13-cv-00490-MMD-VPC (U.S.D.C. NV), March 22, 2016.

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Related legal case

Kirk v. Carson City