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Lawsuit Over Mailroom Abuses by Washington DOC Leads to Policy Changes

A settlement reached on November 1, 2023, between the Washington Department of Corrections (DOC) and current or former state prisoners resulted in changes to prison mail policies. While incarcerated at Monroe Correctional Complex (MCC), Adam Bauer, David Cochran, Dylan Downey, Michael Morales and Jessien Perry joined Carmella Holt, one of Morales’s family members, in filing a suit challenging the prison mailroom’s practice of “unlawfully censoring constitutionally protected mail” between prisoners “and their family, friends, legal counsel, and the courts.”

Specifically, Plaintiffs alleged that photos of fully clothed women were rejected by mailroom staffers who found them “too provocative”; however, pictures of mostly nude men were not intercepted. Furthermore, prisoners’ legal mail was opened outside their presence and sometimes rejected, with rejection notices often not provided, in violation of prisoners’ due process rights. Lastly, Defendants—including MCC mailroom Sgt. Melvin E. Hopkins—allegedly retaliated against prisoners who complained about prison conditions in their correspondence with others.

The complaint alleged violations of DOC’s mail policy with respect to both written letters and e-messages sent to and from prisoners through a service provided by private vendor JPay. With respect to legal mail, the complaint described several incidents wherein mail from courts and attorneys was improperly opened and rejected or processed as regular mail.

Regarding mail rejected due to sexually explicit content, mailroom staff disallowed photos of women wearing clothes they thought were too tight or dresses that were too short. Yet some MCC prisoners “subscribe to exercise or health-related magazines, which prominently display near-naked, sometimes oiled men,” the complaint noted. It included a magazine cover with a man wearing only a thong and a photo showing an “apparently entirely naked [man], his genitals covered only by a guitar,” which had been allowed.

Censorship at times bordered on the absurd. When one of the plaintiffs teasingly wrote to a correspondent that he loved her and wanted her to text him or “Imma spank that ass,” his e-message was rejected for including “threats of physical harm/criminal activity.”

The lawsuit further contended that Defendants used “their control of the mailroom to stop inmates [from] communicating complaints and grievances about prison conditions to those outside the prison,” including criticism of MCC’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. In apparent retaliation for grievances and complaints, mail and e-messages sent to Plaintiffs were delayed weeks or sometimes months. When a former MCC prisoner sent an e-message to his daughter critical of Sgt. Hopkins, mailroom staff forwarded it to him and he issued a disciplinary report ordering the prisoner to “cease his behavior at once.”

In violation of DOC policy, mail rejection notices often were never sent to the recipient or sender, thus they could not be appealed. When notices were provided, they failed to include reasons or “rejection numbers,” making appeals impossible. The complaint raised claims under the First and Fourteenth Amendments, including an equal protection claim for rejecting photos of clothed women while allowing pictures of almost-nude men, as well as a right-to-counsel claim under the Sixth Amendment.

In the settlement agreement between the parties, DOC agreed to revise its Rejection Notice Form 05-525 and replace several sections of its mail policy 450.100. The revised rejection notice includes clear instructions for filing appeals and specific definitions for what constitutes sexually explicit materials. The revised mail policy provides detailed rules for appealing rejections and processing legal mail; it also specifies that prison staff “are strictly prohibited from using mail rejections as a form of retaliation.” The changes apply to all DOC prisons statewide.

The suit did not seek monetary damages, and each party paid its own attorney fees. Plaintiffs were ably represented by attorneys from Davis Wright Tremaine, LLP in Seattle. See: Bauer v. Wash. Dep’t of Corr., USDC (W.D. Wash.), Case No. 2:21-cv-00453.

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Related legal case

Bauer v. Wash. Dep’t of Corr.