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Kansas Jail Prisoners Win Lawsuit Over Postcard-only Policy

by Ed Lyon

When Wilson County, Kansas Sheriff Pete Figgins instituted a postcard-only correspondence policy at the county jail, prisoners were only allowed to send and receive letters to and from attorneys. No notice was provided when mail was rejected under the new policy.

In April 2016, the ACLU Foundation of Kansas and the Social Justice Law Collective filed a federal class-action lawsuit against the sheriff, challenging the postcard-only policy on First Amendment free speech and Fourteenth Amendment due process grounds.

The three lead plaintiffs were free-world citizens, including a father, a grandmother and a cousin of prisoners held at the Wilson County jail. The father had custody of his jailed son’s two minor children. The grandmother was 78 years old and cared for her husband, who had cancer. The cousin had a job that required frequent travel.

The impossibility of young children trying to meaningfully communicate with their jailed father via postcards was cited in the complaint, as was the inability of an elderly grandparent to travel to the jail for in-person visits because she had to care for her critically ill spouse. The inability of people who travel frequently to visit loved ones at the jail also was mentioned, plus the exorbitant cost of phone calls at the jail and lack of privacy in the recorded calls.

“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,” stated Doug Bonney, legal director of the ACLU Foundation of Kansas.

The plaintiffs’ attorneys pointed out that had the ancient Romans had a postcard-only policy, the Apostle Paul would not have been able to send his Epistles to fellow Christians. And had the jail in Birmingham, Alabama had such a policy in the 1960s, Martin Luther King, Jr. would not have written his famous 23-page Letter from Birmingham Jail.

The district court granted the plaintiffs’ motion for class-action status in August 2016, and the parties subsequently agreed to settle the case. The settlement, which was approved by the court on November 2, 2017, included rescinding the postcard-only policy and allowing prisoners to send and receive letters. Further, Wilson County agreed to pay $10,000 in litigation costs. See: Ogden v. Figgins, U.S.D.C. (D. Kan.), Case No. 2:16-cv-02268-JAR-KGG. 

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Related legal case

Ogden v. Figgins