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Lawsuit Challenges PA Prisons' Mail Policy

Pennsylvania prisoners have been advised not to use mail to communicate with their attorneys.(diegoattorney/pixabay)
Pennsylvania prisoners have been advised not to use mail to communicate with their attorneys.(diegoattorney/pixabay)
November 1, 2018

HARRISBURG, Pa. – Photocopying mail from attorneys to incarcerated clients violates the First Amendment, according to two lawsuits filed against the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections.

The policy was instituted as part of a crackdown on visitation and mail sent to prisoners.

All mail, including mail from attorneys, is photocopied, the DOC keeps the originals for 45 days and gives the copies to inmates.

The restrictions were instituted after corrections officers were exposed to an unknown substance when handling mail.

But attorneys are legally required to keep communications with their clients confidential, and according to Sara Rose, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU of Pennsylvania, the courts are very clear on this issue.

"Retaining opened mail outside of a prisoner's presence violates the First Amendment because it chills their expression by making them concerned about whether the communications with their attorneys will be kept confidential," she explains.

The DOC maintains the policy is intended to stop drugs from entering prisons, but the attorneys say DOC has shown no evidence that legal mail is a source of illegal drugs.

Keith Whitson, an attorney with the law firm Schnader Harrison Segal and Lewis, points out that since the policy went into effect, prisoners have been advised not to correspond with their attorneys through the mail.

"Instead, attorneys have been forced to travel all over the state to meet with their clients personally each time they need to discuss anything,” he relates. “These are nonprofit organizations that do not have the staff and resources to continue in-person visits for all such communications."

Alexandra Morgan-Kurtz, an attorney with the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project, says her organization works with people who are held in DOC facilities throughout the state. But since this policy went into effect, her firm has been unable to communicate with many incarcerated clients.

"We have a growing pile of people who now have absolutely no legal advice from anyone because we simply don't have the time to call each and every one of the hundreds of people who have reached out to us for help," she states.

The two cases, one on behalf of four organizations and one on behalf of a person in prison, were filed in the Federal District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania.

Andrea Sears, Public News Service - PA