Lawyers for the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Colorado today sued Boulder County Jail officials for enacting an unconstitutional policy barring prisoners from sending letters to people in the outside world.
Implemented in March, the policy restricts all outgoing correspondence to postcards supplied by the jail, except narrow categories deemed to be “legal” or “official” mail.
“This postcard-only policy severely restricts prisoners’ ability to communicate with their parents, children, spouses, domestic partners, sweethearts, friends, or anyone else who does not fall within the jail’s narrow exception to the newly-imposed ban on outgoing letters,” said Mark Silverstein, Legal Director of the ACLU of Colorado. “This unjustified restriction on written communications violates the rights of both the prisoners and their correspondents. Families have a First Amendment right to receive all of their loved one’s written words, not just the few guarded sentences a prisoner can fit onto a postcard.”
According to the class action lawsuit filed in federal district court in Denver, the postcard-only policy has forced prisoners to either abandon important correspondence or risk divulging highly confidential, sensitive information to anyone who will handle or see a postcard. As a result, gay prisoners have been chilled from expressing themselves when writing to their intimate partners. Prisoners with HIV or Hepatitis C have refrained from corresponding with family members about their medical conditions. Prisoners who express themselves through drawings or cartoons cannot enclose their art. Those who wish to share an inspirational religious tract, or a clipping from a newspaper or magazine, are forbidden from doing so. When children may have access to the mailbox, parents are chilled from writing to their spouses about marital problems, child-raising issues, and other matters they do not wish to disclose to their children. The policy also prevents prisoners from using envelopes to send letters that seek spiritual guidance from clergy, provide sensitive information to investigative reporters, or to submit articles or letters to newspapers or other periodicals for publication.
“Writing letters to people in the free world is critical for helping prisoners maintain ties to their families and communities and ensuring their successful reintegration upon release,” said David Fathi, Director of the ACLU National Prison Project. “Enacting an across-the-board policy that significantly restricts the First Amendment freedoms of all current and future pre-trial detainees and prisoners in the jail is both unwise and unconstitutional.”
Before the challenged policy was adopted, prisoners were allowed to write five three-page letters per week, with paper, envelope, and postage supplied by the jail. The new policy was adopted after two prisoners enclosed letters to Boulder-area children inside letters addressed to a third party outside the jail. That person then mailed the previously-enclosed letters to the children, which arrived without bearing the usual warning that the mailing originated from the Boulder jail.
“While we understand the jail’s desire to address this situation, the postcard-only policy is an over-reaction that unnecessarily infringes on the rights of hundreds of persons,” Fathi explained. “The jail could easily have adopted a less restrictive rule—such as prohibiting envelopes within envelopes—that would have addressed the issue without infringing so drastically on the First Amendment rights of all prisoners and their free-world correspondents.”
The Boulder County Jail, located in Boulder, Colorado, has an average daily population of approximately 400. It houses both convicted prisoners and detainees who are awaiting trial.
The ACLU’s lawsuit was filed on behalf of five individual prisoners who represent a class of current and future prisoners subject to the postcard-only policy.
The lawsuit names as defendants Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle, and Division Chief Larry R. Hank, administrator of the Boulder County Jail. It seeks a court ruling invalidating the postcard-only policy.
About the ACLU of Colorado
The ACLU is a nationwide, non-profit, non-partisan organization dedicated to defending and preserving the principles of the Bill of Rights through litigation, advocacy and public education. The ACLU Foundation of Colorado works to protect the rights of all Coloradans.