Constitutionality of a Prison Postcard-Only Mail Policy
The Constitutionality of a Prison Postcard-Only Mail Policy
The state Department of Corrections (DOC) has requested a legal opinion of its postcard-only mail policy covering all incoming and outgoing letters and packages. The DOC is facing several lawsuits alleging the restrictive mail policy is violating the Constitutional rights of inmates, as well as external parties wishing to communicate with inmates through the mail. The following opinion represents a review of the applicable case law and whether the mail policy could withstand Constitutional challenges.
The lawsuits that have been filed against the DOC for implementing a postcard-only mail policy allege violations of free speech protected by the First Amendment, privacy violations under the Fourth Amendment, and procedural due process rights under the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
Based on considerable U.S. Supreme Court jurisprudence, the only issues with possible standing are free speech and procedural due process rights. The Court has long recognized the right of correctional institutions to limit the Constitutional rights of inmates for security and safety reasons, including the right to conduct searches of personal belongings. However, there are limits to the extent to which correctional authorities can impose restrictions on speech and due process rights of prisoners. Based on Supreme Court and lower court jurisprudence, it seems unlikely that a postcard-only mail policy would survive the First and Fourteenth Amendment challenges in court. Even if the mail policy were significantly revised to address procedural due process concerns, it seems unlikely given the facts presented that the policy would survive a First Amendment challenge.
Statement of Facts
The state DOC has come under fire for implementing a postcard-only, incoming and outgoing mail policy for its prison system. The criticism appears to be coming from most concerned parties, including inmates, inmate advocacy groups, legislators, and major newspapers. This criticism also has teeth, in the form of several civil suits alleging violation of inmates First, Fourth, and the procedural due process rights enshrined in the Fourteenth Amendment.
The DOC has argued that the postcard-only policy was necessary because of a dramatic increase in the amount of contraband being confiscated from inmate mail and significant cuts to the staffing budget, thus threatening prison security and the safety of inmates and staff. The postcard-only mail policy is supposed to free up staff for other essential duties, including ensuring prison security and safety.
What is not mentioned is the nature of the increased contraband. This is an important detail because most seized contraband, such as food and pornography, does not represent a threat to prison security (Madison.com, 2009). Also not mentioned is whether the postcard-only mail policy applied to legal and official correspondence.
There is considerable U.S. Supreme Court jurisprudence concerning the Constitutional rights of prisoners. The Court found in Procunier v. Martinez (1974) that unless a prisoner's expression of his or her Constitutional rights can be shown to impinge upon prison security, order, discipline, or prisoner rehabilitation, then they cannot be violated (Justia.com, n.d.). However, in its ruling the Court focused on the right of outside parties to communicate with inmates through the mail. In light of the Martinez decision, an incoming mail restriction would be considered unconstitutional if it did not serve a legitimate penological interest like prison security.
The Martinez ruling has been reworked by the Court in the decades since. In Turner v. Safley (1987) the Court limited the scope of the Martinez decision to a prisoner's First Amendment rights (Justia.com, n.d.). The Court also established the current standards for determining reasonableness of a regulation that restricts an inmate's ability to communicate with the outside world, and vice versa. A reasonable regulation must be based on a legitimate, content-neutral objective and inmates must have access to other means of communicating with the outside world. An example of a legitimate, content-neutral penological interest would be prison security and the safety of prison staff and inmates. An example of an alternative method of communications would be access to phones and face-to-face conversations. A valid test of a regulation's reasonableness is that no other alternative could be found that would lessen the restrictions on prisoner's rights, while not impinging on prison safety or security. In addition, under Safley, inmate to inmate communications are not protected based on the jurisprudence established in Jones v. North Carolina Prisoner's Union (1977).
To put the Supreme Court's inmate First Amendment jurisprudence in simpler language, the outside world cannot be kept from communicating with inmates using some form of correspondence. This was made clear in Pell v. Procunier (1974), which held that it does not matter how the outside world communicates with inmates, as long as they can (Justia.com, n.d.).
The DOC argument that the combined effect of staffing shortages and the increased amount of contraband being seized from letters and packages creates a security and safety risk for inmates and staff is on its face defensible, but will this policy survive the Turner reasonableness test? The goal of the restriction is content-neutral and therefore meets the first test of reasonableness. The facts provided do not suggest that visitation or phone privileges have been restricted, but neither do they suggest these forms of communication are sufficient to meet both free speech and procedural due process rights of prisoners and their civilian contacts. If they are sufficient, then the restrictive mail policy would probably survive a challenge before the U.S. Supreme Court. If they are not sufficient, then it is unlikely that the mail restrictions could survive a lower court hearing, let alone have its merits argued in front of the Supreme Court.
The Constitutionality of a postcard-only mail policy implemented at the Columbia County Jail in St. Helens, Oregon was recently challenged in a federal district court (Prison Legal News v. Columbia County et al., 2012). This mail policy restricted all non-legal and non-official incoming and outgoing inmate mail to postcards only. The plaintiff, Prison Legal News, filed under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging violation of speech and procedural due process rights and was seeking a preliminary injunction against the mail policy until trial.
The main speech issue before the court was the ability of Prison Legal News and inmates to correspond (Prison Legal News v. Columbia County et al., 2012). In a previous ruling, the 9th Circuit determined that publishers and inmates have a First Amendment right to communicate through the mail, barring a significant negative impact on prison security and safety (Prison Legal News v. Columbia County et al., 2012, p. 15). District Judge Simon cited federal case law supporting security and limited staffing resources as legitimate, content-neutral goals; however, the only benefit a postcard-only policy seems to provide is faster mail handling, not a significant reduction in the trade of contraband. Judge Simon felt that the evidence supported a similar conclusion with respect to the Columbia County Jail mail policy.
The above opinion by Judge Simon seems to suggest that contraband cannot be controlled significantly better by instituting a post-card only mail policy. The only DOC argument left, in light of this opinion, is that a postcard-only mail policy would free up staff for other important duties related to prison security. Judge Simon expressed his doubts that a 30% (30 to 60 minutes savings) reduction in time spent handling mail would provide a significant benefit to jail security (Prison Legal News v. Columbia County et al., 2012). He then cited 9th Circuit decisions that concluded that minor time savings is not sufficient justification for restriction inmate speech. The overall conclusion by Judge Simon was the postcard-only mail policy at Columbia County Jail failed the first test of reasonableness established by the U.S. Supreme Court in Turner v. Safley (Justia.com, n.d.) by not having a rational relationship to a legitimate, content-neutral penological interest. Despite this opinion, he felt it was important to challenge the jail mail policy using the other tests of reasonableness under Turner.
Judge Simon examined the evidence for defendants' claims that alternative methods of communication existed which could satisfy the First Amendment protections (Prison Legal News v. Columbia County et al., 2012). Although face-to-face interactions and phone calls are possible, Judge Simon felt this was not equivalent to correspondence by mail. He explained that postcards cannot contain photos of loved ones, report cards, bills, doctor reports and other personal information that would otherwise be considered conducive to rehabilitation efforts. The judge cited the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Procunier v. Martinez (1974), which held that communicating responsibly, thoughtfully, and freely with the outside world advances rehabilitation and is therefore a competing legitimate penological interest. A postcard-only mail policy would therefore likely fail the second test of reasonableness at trial.
Judge Simon then examined the concerns about potentially disruptive content and an easy alternative that satisfies penological interests (Prison Legal News v. Columbia County et al., 2012). Regarding the former criteria, Prison Legal News did not contest restrictions on potentially disruptive…