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Indiana DOC Settles Class-Action Lawsuit Over Ban on Incoming Mail Except That in White Envelopes Using White, Lined Paper

On August 9, 2019, an Indiana federal court memorialized the stipulations in a private settlement agreement between the Indiana Department of Corrections (DOC) and a class of prisoners subject to restrictions on incoming mail. The DOC agreed to photocopy non-legal mail, including greeting cards, and deliver the photocopies to the prisoners.

Charles Sweeney and Anthony Delarosa were the named plaintiffs in a federal class-action civil rights lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of DOC mail regulations that effectively banned greeting cards, colored paper, colored envelopes and printer paper in non-legal incoming correspondence.

Executive Directive #18-34 required that non-legal incoming correspondence “be in a plain white envelope and the letter/correspondence inside the envelope must be on originally purchased, plain while, lined paper. Photographs shall be permitted provided they are printed onto originally purchased, plain white, lined paper.”

The justification given for this restriction was that paper was being dipped in liquid drugs and mailed into the DOC and colored paper helped disguise it. By contrast, the lines on white lined paper became distorted when the paper was dipped in a drug solution, revealing the manipulation.

The plaintiffs pointed out that such an extreme restriction infringed on their First Amendment rights—especially since printer paper was not generally available in a lined format and the common school-notebook-type lined paper would not run through a printer. They noted that photocopying was a simple solution to the problem of drug smuggling through the mail which would be a lesser infringement on their rights and was being practiced in several other prison systems.

The court agreed and issued a preliminary injunction against enforcing the regulations. This prompted the DOC to enter into a private settlement agreement to photocopy all incoming non-legal mail, regardless of the type of paper it is written or printed on and hold the originals for 14 days to allow the receiver to file a grievance to complain should the copy be incomplete.

The court required the DOC pay plaintiffs’ attorney fees of $42,359. The agreement was limited to two years, after which the case would be dismissed without prejudice. The agreement was approved, and went into effect, on February 21, 2020. The prisoners were represented by the ACLU of Indiana.  See: Sweeney v. Commissioner, Indiana Department of Corrections, Case No. 1:17-cv-03550-JMS-MPB (U.S.D.C., S.D. Ind.). 

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