A new federal lawsuit is challenging the mail policy for inmates at a county jail in South Florida.
According to the lawsuit, the jail’s policy requiring all incoming and outgoing mail to fit on a postcard-size letter is unconstitutional. The lawsuit was filed against St. Lucie County Sheriff Kenneth J. Mascara in the Southern District of Florida earlier this month.
“It’s pretty limiting of the first amendment,” said Paul Wright, editor of Prison Legal News, the publication behind the lawsuit. “It serves to isolate prisoners from their family members and themselves. You don’t have email, and phone calls are ridiculously expensive, so all you can communicate with is a postcard.”
Prison Legal News was started by Wright in the 1990s from his jail cell in Washington state. He was released in 2003 after serving 17 years for the killing of a man during a robbery.
Wright is also the founder and executive director of the Human Rights Defense Center.
The sheriff does not agree with any of the allegations of the lawsuit, said Attorney Adam Fetterman, who represents the sheriff’s office.
According to the policy, “all incoming mail must be in the form of a post card. Legitimate legal and/or privileged mail is excluded from this policy. Post cards with computer generated pictures printed on them will be allowed.”
Postcards have to be a minimum of 3.5 inches wide and cannot be larger than six inches in length.
The policy went into place in 2010 “to protect the security of the facility,” Fetterman said.
“It’s a bad idea,” said Randy Berg, the attorney for Prison Legal News. Policies like this started in Arizona in 2007.
“It’s one those get tough on crime things that is sweeping the country,” he said.
For the last decade, Berg has been representing Prison Legal News in similar cases. Berg and the Florida Justice Institute have sued local jails for this very issue before -- most recently in three other Florida counties: Flagler, Okaloosa and Manatee.
According to the lawsuit, the postcard-only policy at the St. Lucie County jail violates the inmates’ constitutional right to free speech.
This policy prevents Wright from distributing his monthly newsletter, Prison Legal News, which highlights stories relating to the criminal justice system. Currently, Prison Legal News has about 9,000 subscribers.
Fetterman and the sheriff’s office is currently reviewing the lawsuit.
“We are charged with the care, custody and control of 1,200-1,300 inmates in the jail at any day and will do anything we can within our power to meet our responsibilities,” Fetterman said. “If that means we have to litigate this to trial, we will.”
Berg and Wright would like to see the postcard-only policy dropped at the jail.
“It’s ill-advised,” Berg said. “This is a time when inmates are most vulnerable. They need to maintain contact with their families and their employers and putting everything on a postcard is impossible.”
Currently, federally and most state-run correctional facilities do not have policies like this. According to Berg, of the 67 counties in Florida, about 20 have similar policies.
Fetterman said another concern for the jail is contraband.
“Mail coming into the sheriff’s office as packages can be used to cover-up contraband -- whether it is drugs, pornography, or weapons,” he said.
Wright said the presence of contraband actually increases after these policies go into place. “There is a lack of connection between mail policies and contraband,” he said.
At the very least Berg would like to see books be allowed to be delivered through the mail. Right now books are included in the postcard-only policy and are not allowed to be shipped to inmates.
This includes anything from Amazon, Random House and other online distributors who may send mail directly to inmates.
Fetterman said inmates are provided “with an extensive leisure library. Any book they want made available is made available if they need it.” He recalled an instance where one inmate requested a copy of the book, “Tao Te Chaing” and it was made available.
Books related to bomb-making or anything that would entice violence or hatred would not be allowed.