Federal Order Formalizes Agreement Between Flagler Sheriff and ACLU Ending Postcard-Only Mail at Jail
FlaglerLive | May 2, 2014
Flagler County Sheriff Jim Manfre had nothing to do with it, and would have never enacted it had he been sheriff. But when he took the oath in January 2013, a policy was in place that forbade inmates at the Flagler County jail from writing or receiving letters. Inmates could only write or receive postcards. As an added dash of epistolary sadism, the cards could be no smaller or larger than index cards.
The postcard-only policy, a rarity in the country, was decreed by former Sheriff Don Fleming a year before Manfre took office. He wanted to save staff time involved in reading and redacting inmate mail. While inmates were not limited by the number of postcards they could write, the cost alone would be a limitation, as it would take 18 postcards, at 28 cents each, to write the equivalent of a two-page letter.
By February 2013, a month into Manfre’s tenure, the policy had not changed (all politics from the previous administration were under review at that time, as were innumerble procedures and personnel matters). The ACLU filed a class-action lawsuit against the sheriff on behalf of Jennifer Underwood, wife of Thomas Underwood, who was booked at the county jail in December 2012 on charges of rape and lewd and lascivious acts on children he’d babysat many years ago.
The mail restrictions were rescinded soon after the lawsuit was filed. The following month, Manfre restored the policy pre-dating Fleming’s decree–the policy that Manfre himself had in place when he was sheriff between 2001 and 2004. “We didn’t even know there was an issue,” Manfre’s attorney, Sid Nowell, said at the time, reflecting some frustration with the ACLU lawsuit’s timing: there had been no attempt from the ACLU to approach the new sheriff and deal with the matter less aggressively than in a lawsuit. “They courtesy-copied me a copy of the complaint but we’ve never officially been served,” Nowell said, “and once the sheriff became aware of it he immediately had a couple of us have a look at it and concluded it was problematic.”
The issue was not entirely settled, however, until Thursday, when Marcia Morales Howard, a federal district judge, entered a consent decree and order formalizing the settlement, which concedes that Fleming’s policy had violated the First Amendment.
The sheriff is now required to deliver mailed correspondence to inmates “that include cards, photographs, full-page drawings, newspaper and magazine clippings, writing materials, photocopied materials, and pages printed from an internet webpage.” The mail must be delivered regardless of the size of the mailed envelope, though the sheriff retains the authority to remove stamps, stickers and return-address labels–as long as the inmate is notified of such removals, and given an opportunity to challenge the removals. The sheriff must also provide the removed return-address label either by handwriting the information removed, or by photocopying it. The reason jail officials remove such elements from envelope is because there have been instances of contraband introduced at the jail under stamps and other sticky elements.
The sheriff may not censor content, either by restricting the number of pages in a letter or by censoring actual language, including obscenities. Content may not be censored “except when the restriction is necessary or essential to preserve internal order and discipline,” the judge’s order states, “maintain institutional security against escape or unauthorized entry, or rehabilitate the sentenced inmate or prevent the sending of (i) threats of physical harm against persons or threats of criminal activity, (ii) threats of blackmail or extortion, (iii) plans for escape, or (iv) information which, if communicated, would create a clear and present danger of violence and physical harm to a human being.”
The consent decree must be posted at the county jail in each common room or sleeping cell where inmates are confined, as well as in the lobby of the jail.
“We are pleased to have reached an agreement with the Sheriff that protects the rights of both those in the county jail and loved ones who wish to communicate with them,” ACLU of Florida staff attorney Benjamin Stevenson said in a statement Thursday. “When a loved one is behind bars, communication is very difficult, and sending letters is often the only practical way to communicate about private matters like financial, medical or family issues.”
Attorneys commended Manfre for quickly deciding to change the policy for the benefit of everyone involved. “Sheriff Manfre stood tall and did the right thing,” said Florida Justice Institute Executive Director Randall C. Berg, Jr. “In addition to being unconstitutional, the postcard only policy made no sense from anyone’s point of view. This case reaffirms the principle that First Amendment rights are not checked at the jailhouse door. Sheriffs cannot restrict correspondence privileges just because it’s more convenient for their jail’s staff.”
The postcard-only policy trend began five years ago with controversial Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio, and caught on at first among administrators of small county jails. Today, dozens of jails in at least 13 states have instituted postcard-only policies. Most recently, the San Diego County Jail embraced the policy in September, and the Sacramento County Jail is set to enforce its own version on February 10. Also last fall, a prison in New Mexico was poised to be the first state prison to implement a postcard-only restriction, but at the last minute the state Department of Corrections intervened and indefinitely postponed the policy.
A federal trial is currently underway in Oregon to determine if the Columbia County Jail’s postcard-only policy violates the free speech rights of incarcerated people and those who correspond with them. While the trial is ongoing, the judge has already issued a preliminary injunction against the jail’s postcard-only policy.
Last year the Northampton, Mass.-based Prison Policy Initiative, a non-profit advocacy group, issued a report critical of postcard-only mail policies. The report argues that the growing jail trend to ban letters and restrict mail to only postcards deters communication that is essential for keeping people from reoffending after release. “Letters are one of the three main ways that people in jails maintain family ties. Phone calls are outrageously expensive, and limited visiting hours often make letters the only viable way to stay in touch,” said Leah Sakala, the report’s author and a policy analyst at the Prison Policy Initiative. “The social science research is clear — people in jail need to maintain strong outside ties to keep from coming right back after they’re released.”
The report is available here. The consent decree is below.