ACLU Sues Sheriff Manfre Over Jail Policy Restricting Incoming Mail to Postcards
FlaglerLive | February 21, 2013
Thomas Underwood, 31, came to public attention last December when he was arrested on allegations of molesting children many years ago. He’s being held at the Flagler County jail on eight related charges, without bond.
Underwood is married to Jennifer Underwood. They have two sons, ages 6 and 4, and are expecting a third son. The couple is not allowed to correspond as the overwhelming number of inmates can correspond with their spouses, loved ones or friends all over the country.
Starting in January 2011, then-Sheriff Don Fleming imposed one of the most restrictive and legally dubious mail policies in the country at the Flagler County jail. Inmates are not allowed to receive letters from outside anymore, except from their attorney or from official sources. They may only receive postcards. And those postcards may not be larger than 3 1/2 by 5 1/2/ inches: the size of the smallest index cards. The cards must be standard-issue, from the United States Post Office. Inmates may write letters, but those, for inexplicable reasons other than that jail guards don’t want to be saddled with reading too much, may not be longer than two pages.
The sheriff’s office never clearly explained why the restrictive rules were necessary two years ago. “The change will free up staff time that otherwise would be used to screen the incoming and outgoing mail,” jail Director Becky Quintieri was quoted as saying in a sheriff’s news release at the time. “It also makes the mail more secure.” The letters may not contain swear words, even the ordinary sort, such as goddamn or bullshit.
The restrictions are imposed in addition to a series of other onerous limits on inmates’s freedom of speech, even though most of the inmates have not yet been found guilty: they are awaiting trial, and as such, are presumed innocent until proven guilty.
Inmates’ phone calls are limited to collect calls, which are very expensive, and on which the jail itself makes a profit. Inmates have limited opportunities to make them. Fellow inmates may easily overhear these calls, which are made in a common area with a row of telephones. Family and friends may only visit inmates on a given day of the week, which prevents many friends and family with a scheduling conflict such as work or other family obligations from visiting at all. Friends and family who do not live near the jail cannot easily visit. Children under 12 years of age, like the Underwoods’s sons, may not visit at all. When family and friends visit, they speak over a telephone to each other in ways that may be overheard by other inmates or visitors. For all these reasons, mail is the most feasible, practical, and private way to communicate and maintain a relationship. But the jail’s policy severely limits such communication.
Several jails have imposed similar rules in the last few years, including, for example, the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department just last September, but in San Diego inmates are also allowed to receive email, thus getting around the text restriction of postcards. Just as jails have adopted the more restrictive policies, judges have been declaring them unconstitutional.
“The postcard-only mail policy drastically restricts an inmate’s ability to communicate with the outside world,” U.S. District Judge Michael Simon of Oregon wrote last summer. “It 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.
“Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the postcard-only mail policy creates a hurdle to thoughtful and constructive written communication between an inmate and his or her unincarcerated family and friends.”
On Wednesday, the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida and the Florida Justice Institute (FJI) announced the filing of a federal class action lawsuit against Sheriff Jim Manfre, challenging the constitutionality of the county jail’s policies restrictions on inmate mail. Manfre has continued former Sheriff Fleming’s ban on incoming letters and requires all mail to inmates to be written on a postcard. The ACLU and FJI filed the suit on behalf of Jennifer Underwood.
The lawsuit asks the court to stop Jim Manfre from continuing the unconstitutional practice of limiting incoming mail between the Underwoods and those similarly situated to short, publicly-readable postcards. It is the first significant lawsuit of Manfre’s tenure.
“I miss my husband terribly and just want to be able to write him a letter about what is going on at home and with the kids without exposing our personal life in a postcard that can be read by anyone,” Underwood said in a release from the ACLU. “A postcard has just enough space to say, ‘I miss you and I wish you were here.’ But the truth is that I have a lot more that I need to share with my husband right now than I can put on the tiny, approved postcard.”
“It’s hard to explain to my young sons why they can’t send their daddy a drawing,” she continued. Jail rules prohibit children, like the Underwood’s sons, from visiting inmates so they cannot see their father.
Manfre said through a spokesman Wednesday afternoon that the lawsuit had arrived at the sheriff’s office after 4 p.m., and that he had not had a chance to read it yet, so would reserve comment until then.
“It should be common sense that a wife shouldn’t lose the ability to communicate with her husband, when he is held in jail, awaiting trial, and is presumed to be innocent,” said Yvette Acosta MacMillan, staff attorney for the ACLU of Florida and counsel in the case. “The Flagler County Jail’s policy violates the rights of both prisoners and their correspondents. When people can’t share information freely, everyone suffers.”
“Simply because a family member is in jail doesn’t mean he ceases to be part of the family,” said Randall Berg, Executive Director, Florida Justice Institute. “Yet, this postcard-only policy forces family members to write everything in abbreviated form, which can be read by anyone, or write nothing at all. Inmates and their families and friends need to be able to discuss issues of health and finances and exchange words of encouragement in a complete and private way. Postcards simply do not allow that. Inmates’ family in these situations will be effectively silenced by the Sheriff’s policy, or risk airing personal or confidential information to others and potentially put themselves in harm’s way .”
Not only does a “postcard-only” policy infringe on Constitutional rights, it may be an obstacle to allowing former offenders to smoothly and successfully re-enter the community. Keeping close, personal ties with friends, family and community members outside the jail allows an inmate to remain connected to and invested in a community – reducing the likelihood of committing new crimes and returning to jail or prison.
The ACLU and FJI won a similar case in 2012, when they challenged a post-card only policy in the Santa Rosa County Jail. The Santa Rosa Sheriff abandoned the policy and paid $135,000 in attorneys’ fees and costs to the ACLU and FJI for their efforts in securing the judgment.
“The courts have established that simply because your loved one is in jail, the government can neither restrict your ability to speak with that person, nor restrict the way you receive information from them,” stated Benjamin Stevenson, Pensacola-based staff attorney for the ACLU of Florida who is also counsel in the Flagler County case as well as the previous case in Santa Rosa County. “Writing and sharing thoughts and artwork with loved ones is one of the most important things to help keep inmates connected to their loved ones and express their reflections while incarcerated. Incarcerated individuals and their loved ones shouldn’t be kept from corresponding about private topics like financial, medical, or relationship issues just because those messages will be in plain sight for all to see – or because there’s simply not enough room to write them out.”
The lawsuit was filed in the Jacksonville Division of the United States District Court, Middle District of Florida.