On April 24, 2013, the U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon held that a postcard-only policy at the Columbia County Jail, which restricted mail sent to and from detainees at the facility to postcards, was unconstitutional. The court therefore permanently prohibited enforcement of the policy – the first time that a jail’s postcard-only policy has been struck down following a trial on the merits.
The ruling, by federal judge Michael H. Simon, was entered in a lawsuit against Columbia County and Sheriff Jeff Dickerson filed by Prison Legal News. PLN sued in January 2012 after Columbia County jail employees rejected PLN’s monthly publication and letters sent to detainees. Further, the jail had failed to provide PLN with notice or an opportunity to appeal the jail’s censorship of its materials. [See: PLN, March 2013, p.50].
The rejection of PLN’s publications and letters was attributed to the jail’s postcard-only policy and policy or practice that prohibited prisoners from receiving magazines. PLN contended that such policies violated its rights under the First Amendment and that the lack of notice and opportunity to appeal was a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment.
During the litigation, the defendants admitted “that inmates have a First Amendment right to receive magazines and inmates and their correspondents have a Fourteenth Amendment right to procedural due process.” However, the jail defended its postcard-only policy and claimed there was no official policy that banned magazines at the jail.
On May 29, 2012, Judge Simon entered a preliminary injunction prohibiting the defendants from enforcing their postcard-only policy. He ruled that the policy “drastically restricts an inmate’s ability to communicate with the outside world” and “prevents an inmate’s family from sending items such as photographs, children’s report cards and drawings, and copies of bills, doctor reports, and spiritual and religious tracts.”
The district court also observed that the jail’s postcard-only policy “inhibits rehabilitation,” citing a Supreme Court decision, Procunier v. Martinez, 416 U.S. 396 (1974), which found “that inmate freedom to correspond with outsiders advances rather than retards the goal of rehabilitation.” Undeterred, the defendants continued to defend their policy at trial, held from February 5-8, 2013.
Following the trial, the district court found in its April 24 ruling that the defendants’ rationales for adopting the postcard-only policy at the jail – preventing the introduction of contraband and saving time during mail inspection – were not supported by the evidence.
The court also determined that jail employees “did not in fact allow magazines to enter the Jail,” and that a ban on magazines was specifically stated in the jail’s inmate handbook, in a jail memorandum, and on the jail’s website. Further, “Sheriff Dickerson credibly testified that he did not know that the First Amendment required the Jail to allow inmates to receive magazines when he took office in 2009.” The district court, therefore, concluded that the defendants had a policy and custom of prohibiting magazines, in violation of the First Amendment.
Accordingly, Judge Simon entered a permanent injunction that enjoins the defendants from restricting incoming and outgoing mail to postcards only. “[T]he postcard-only policy creates a hurdle to thoughtful, personal, and constructive written communications between an inmate and his or her unincarcerated family and friends,” he wrote. He also declared “that inmates have a First Amendment right to receive magazines and that it would be unconstitutional for Defendants to refuse to deliver magazines to inmates solely because they are magazines,” and that detainees and their correspondents have a right to procedural due process when mail is rejected, including notice of the rejection and the ability to appeal same.
“This lawsuit could have been avoided had Sheriff Dickerson not enacted an unconstitutional, harmful policy that limited correspondence to and from detainees to postcards, and had he ensured that jail employees were properly trained as to the First Amendment and due process rights of both detainees and those who correspond with them,” stated PLN editor Paul Wright. “Unfortunately he failed in both of these respects, and the court’s ruling is the result.”
“The court’s well-reasoned and thoughtful opinion is notice to other jails that a postcard-only policy does not serve a legitimate purpose, and indeed harms the public interest. Jails would do well to steer clear of adopting ineffective policies that violate the Constitutional right of free speech,” added attorney Jesse Wing, who represented PLN at trial.
The court’s ruling was on the issue of liability; the issues of damages, attorney fees and costs will be addressed separately. PLN was represented by Marc D. Blackman with the Portland law firm of Ransom Blackman, LLP; Jesse A. Wing and Katie Chamberlain with the Seattle law firm of MacDonald Hoague and Bayless; and Human Rights Defense Center general counsel Lance Weber and staff attorney Alissa Hull. See: Prison Legal News v. Columbia County, U.S.D.C. (D. Ore.), Case No. 3:12-cv-00071-SI.
(First published by Prison Legal News and used here by permission)