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ACLU Sues Sheriff Manfre Over Jail Policy Restricting Incoming Mail to Postcards

| February 21, 2013

Not an inmate's favorite sight.

Not an inmate’s favorite sight.

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.

ACLU lawsuit against Flagler County jail’s postcard policy.

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35 Responses for “ACLU Sues Sheriff Manfre Over Jail Policy Restricting Incoming Mail to Postcards”

  1. confidential says:

    Seems to me very peculiar that this lawsuit is brought against the administration of our just elected Sheriff Jim Manfre even before even asking him to consider undo, the policy that he inherited from past Sheriff Donald Fleming instated by him in 2011. Why didn’t they sue Sheriff Fleming the policy instigator?Couldn’t the ACLU and FJI instead formally request of the current Sheriff Jim Manfre do away with this policy if deemed illegal, before starting a lawsuit, for something that the current Sheriff didn’t institute? Hope Jim goes ahead and avoids wasting money and time in lawsuits and court hearings, if due to common sense and legality, Fleming’s policy, is found/deemed illegal.

  2. Bubba says:

    Well I know one thing for sure. NOBODY is going to be getting mail on Saturdays.

  3. h&h says:

    ACLU is another worthless liberal organization that sticks it’s nose into everything.. Why don’t these people get a haircut and a real job.. I hope Manfre tells them to stuff it..

  4. Nancy N. says:

    It’s about time someone challenged this insane and unconstitutional policy. Way to go ACLU.

  5. Who knows says:

    Was it asked of manfre to change this policy set in place by the former Sheriff before this paperwork was filed? I am interested to know if he refused.

  6. Jeanne says:

    Good for Manfre. I’m a little tired of us giving inmates too many freedoms. Maybe if we started making jail a miserable place to be, people will think twice before committing crimes. They are lucky to get any mail at all, I feel. If you commit a crime, you should have to be punished. No tv, no phones, no gym, no exercising. It should be work, 7 days a week. You want to get mail? Well, how about this, don’t commit any crimes! You want family to visit you? Don’t commit any crimes. It’s pretty simple. I do not feel sorry for any inmates, and I feel more privileges should be taken away. If you commit a crime, you shouldn’t be allowed so many liberties.

    • innocent until proven guilty says:

      Whatever happened to innocent until proven guilty? I agree with punishing the guilty , but thats not the case here. It is unconstitutional!

    • Nancy says:

      I agree with your statement for convicted inmates, BUT, this is really in regards to the fact that Thomas Underwood is innocent until proven guilty. He hasn’t been tried yet so for someone awaiting trial, they shouldn’t fall into the same category of the convicted inmates policies.

  7. anonymous says:

    Hopefully Sheriff Manfre with his education and experience as a lawyer will see the implications of this and change the policy that he did not implement. And give the detainees access to books, too, please.

  8. Citizen Kane says:

    I wonder if Flemmings son was held to the same limitations when he was arrested for drugs and placed in jail.

  9. Mel Bronson says:

    The Communist created and run ACLU must have better things to do than pester the Flagler County sheriff’s department.
    They must be really hard up.

  10. Jill says:

    Ever get the thought that Florida is like the Russian Gulag? The Gulag is recognized as a major instrument of political repression in the Soviet Union.

    My secret vote for either Fleming or Manfre to be Shire of Flagler County did not include this practice of running amok of prisoner rights. Is Manfre now going to spend over $100,000 of taxpayer money to fight this lawsuit which he and the Sheriff’s Department will lose.

    I’m for law and order but not at the expense of an inmate being deprived of letters, loved ones and family contacts. We should expect no less just because they are incarcerated.

    Sheriff Manfre acquiesce and move on in the name of decency and compassion.

  11. downinthelab says:

    Let them have their letters but please unplug the TV

  12. Ben Dover says:

    Well if people would stop sending drugs and information about harming other inmates they wouldn t need the restrictions, its the gangs and thugs making things bad for everyone else, I agree they should be able to communicate, but the first time they get caught sending anything other then family information and pictures and drawing , their letter writing rights should be revoked

  13. there are three sides to every story says:

    When you commit a crime against the community you no longer deserve your rights which include mail!

    • NortonSmitty says:

      If you are in the local jail, it means you are awaiting trial and probably haven’t been convicted of anything. So you shouldn’t be deprived of any rights, let alone communicating with people that can assist you in your defense.

    • Nancy N. says:

      Most jail inmates are in PRE-TRIAL detention, meaning they haven’t been tried yet or therefore convicted of anything. Some of them might even be – gasp! – innocent of what they are accused of, but are waiting for their turn in court.

      Bottom line – the NUMBER ONE preventer of recidivism is strong family ties. Almost 90% of state prison inmates will get out at some point. In jails that number is even higher. If you want those inmates to come out and have a shot at becoming productive members of society…then mail, phone calls and visits aren’t luxuries. They are necessities. Under the current jail rules, inmates can’t see their children who are under age 12 since they can’t visit. They can’t receive pictures of them. How are they supposed to stay bonded to kids that they don’t even know what they look like when young kids grow and change so quickly?

  14. ANONYMOUSAY says:

    It’s funny how the tough on crime folks talk all that mess about what prisoners should have and what they shouldn’t. Ask the the men who watch them everyday about that and see what they think the inmates should have? Not the law makers. The guards will say whatever makes their job easier. What do you think their just going to walk in circles all day? Most guards are unarmed and outnumbered. Try being the focus of an inmate assault and then see how your Regan era war on crime crap goes. These politicians crafted no way out situations for certain classes, made money in the 80’s and early 90’s now it’s backfiring and they know it and you don’t because your on the outside looking in. This country made a conscience effort to make money by incarcerating now matter how they had to do it. The non prejudicial research is out there. It’s seems everybody want to put blinders on when it comes to the mechanics of why this all so messed up. The politicians won’t seal up the border, do you really think they want to stop crime?

    • Magnolia says:

      Anonymousay, “No way out for certain classes?” Since when? I’m tired of “certain classes” feeling like they have no opportunities. Most can get a fee education because of their low income levels or color of their skin. Do they?

      We have enough victims in this country; we don’t need anymore.

      That money I EARNED in the 80’s, 90’s put a roof over my head, fed my family, helped me to EARN a retirement and pay for college and healthcare and I did it without any help. That was no “backfire”, that was damned hard work.

      “This is all messed up” because society has no morals anymore. Parents who have no parenting skills. Too many felons and would be felons claiming they don’t know right from wrong. Easier to make a fast buck doing something illegal instead of working for it. Nobody accepting responsibility for anything anymore. That’s why this is so messed up.

  15. glad fly says:

    most jail inmates especially those on a state and federal level have it much better off than most senior citizens on social security. free,medical,dental,air conditioning,heat,roof over their head,free room and board… seniors struggle daily,have to pay high co-pays on medicaid and medicare,pay rent sometimes in squallor conditions. God bless America.

    • Citizen Kane says:

      Are you serious? Before spouting off some ignorant rant about how senior citizens get treated worse than prisoners, why don’t you do some research.
      I can assure you that a term spent in Flagler County jail is farrrr less desirable than any retirement home in the area. Believe it or not some of the inmates are actually Innocent, or there for minor driving violations.The free “medical” and “dental” that you claim a prisoner receives is something similar to the care a child receives at a school nurse. A band-aid for a cut and ibuprofen for a tooth ache.
      Imagine 300 guys sharing 4 toilets and 3 showers. Yeah, thats where I’d rather stay versus the Marriot this weekend.

  16. Will says:

    A few of the writers above missed a point in the article. Some of the inmates are accused awaiting trial, and must be presumed innocent. Without cause, why limit their mail along with mail of those found guilty?

    Frankly, mail for someone in jail for a minor crime might help their rehabilitation. Mail for someone convicted of a capital crime might be viewed differently.

    Good luck sorting this out.

  17. Jack Howell says:

    Sheriff Manfre is well aware of the inner circle legal workings with the ACLU, FJI and the NAACP. Those in society that commit crime and are subsequently apprehend and charged must have some of their civil rights restricted. Yes a man is presumed innocent until he is proven guilty. One must remember that jail was not built to a community center. Prisoners deserve no break but to follow jail procedures and policies. I don’t see Sheriff Manfre making any significant changes at this time
    Simple solution for Flagler County Inmates: Don’t do the crime and you won’t lose civil rights

  18. Girl says:

    Post/cards virus letters, I guess the letters were banned because of maybe items smuggled in – you think?
    They would have to open everything – now they don’t.
    Its a jail, not a vacation – if they have more to say, do more than one post/card- not too hard to figure out.
    People that could be one of reasons we have the problems we do, the criminals have more rights than us.

  19. Brighton Beach says:

    Let them have their letters!

    “I don’t care how much money I gotta spend
    Got to get back to my baby again
    Lonely days are gone, I’m a-goin’ home
    ‘Cause my baby just wrote me a letter

    Well, she wrote me a letter
    Said she couldn’t live without me no more
    Listen, mister, can’t you see I got to get back
    To my baby once more?

    Anyway, yeah gimme a ticket for an aeroplane
    I ain’t got time to take a fast train
    Lonely days are gone, I’m a-goin’ home
    ‘Cause my baby just wrote me a letter”

    –The Letter, by The Box Tops

  20. ANONYMOUSAY says:

    They suspended oversight of full letters to postcards because of the manpower/money it takes to supervise the scrutiny of going through the letters one by one. Not too long in the past a food contractor or civilian jail worker was caught and charged with bringing contraband/drugs into the Flagler county jail. Did they suspend all food contracts and resort to vending machines? No. People need to get a grip. All these commenter’s that want this iron fist, us against the criminal are the same Ted Nugent gun freaks itching to shoot another human being over some fake threat. Just remember YOUR insensitivity may bite you in the butt when you find yourself or your kid on the other side of the law because of some unforeseen occurrence. Just ask your legal Flagler Beach gun owner buddy on trial for murder, and the perscription pillers, Driving while impaired people running over old ladies. No insurance, it can go on and on and you’ll find yourself booked with a public mugshot. But than again selective seeing and hearing does wonders for narcissist.

  21. Nancy N. says:

    “if they have more to say, do more than one post/card- not too hard to figure out.”

    You’ve obviously never had the misfortune of having to communicate with a loved one who is incarcerated, because you have absolutely no understanding what it is like to do so.

    It’s not just about words on a page. It’s about the family photos, the kid’s drawings and school papers, copies of the magazine articles I write – the pieces of our LIFE that he gets to see through those envelopes that I send him in the mail. It’s about birthday cards and anniversary cards.

    It’s about all those things that actually bind a family together. And that bond is what gives inmates a chance at a productive life when they get out.

    You’re right. It takes staff time to open and examine items. But the state prison system does it – why can’t Flagler County? It’s a good investment in inmate morale (which improves security) and lowering long-term costs by preserving an inmate’s support system and therefore lowering recidivism and long-term incarceration rates.

    Ah yes, gladfly, you resurrect the old “prisoners have it better than regular people” refrain. I was wondering how long before someone resorted to that. Fact check – Florida DOC facilities DO NOT have air conditioning, barely have heat, you wouldn’t feed your dog what they eat, and their free “bed” consists of a metal pallet with a thin piece of foam over it. Their free “medical” consists of doctors and nurses who can’t get jobs anywhere else, standards of care that would result in malpractice suits anywhere else, and a non-existent dental plan (no routine preventative care and if you have a problem they just pull the tooth, no treatment). You wouldn’t survive a week in there. They treat them like animals.

    All this focus on mail to prevent contraband coming into facilities ignores an embarrassing reality – the number one source of contraband in correctional facilities is STAFF. Correctional Officers and employees are drastically underpaid and contraband is a way to supplement their income. Too many succumb to the temptation, which is why the prisons and jails are full of contraband phones, tobacco and drugs. Do inmates smuggle a small portion of it in? Of course. But the vast majority of it comes in through the path of least resistance – trusted staff.

  22. christina b says:

    One more time–these people have not been convicted yet. What part of “innocent until proven guilty” are some of you willing to forget about?

    What this says to me is that the jail is understaffed. That’s not their fault, but it’s not the folks’ fault awaiting a trial by a jury of their peers either. Those of you just knee-jerk reacting by lumping these people in with convicted criminals, saying “Good! Let ’em lose their rights!” need to review basic civics.

    What if it was you? And don’t tell me “oh, well, I won’t commit any crimes” unless you don’t drink alcohol, EVER. Because this could happen to ANYONE. And what then? What if your lawyer wanted to mail you something? So he can’t do that now? That’s absurd, and it’s WRONG.

    • Whodat says:

      We have over one million people incarcerated in this country not to mention ones on probation, house arrest, detox programs, work release. We have 315 million living in the United States. That accounts to one person incarcerated to every 315 people in this country. That, my friends is a staggering amount of people locked up at any one time. We have the worlds most incarcerated individuals in the world. Some say, this is the price of freedom. China has a population of 1.2 billion people and no where our numbers but the citizen is far from free expression or having individual rights.

      If anyone in this country thinks that being incarcerated is a picnic I beg to differ. The fact that your individual freedom is removed to a tiny cell with no privacy and a daily regimen of strict control is awe inspiring.

      As punishment and to protect society we incarcerate people for crimes they were found guilty of and those awaiting serious crime. Some we put to death. In merry old England the townsfolk would go to the town center to watch the weekly be-headings as though they were a freak show with the idea that punishment should be just and swift. Unfortunately, justice today is not temporal because of case loads and appeals.

      We, as a society, should never lower our standards or deny basic human needs because someone is incarcerated in these United States, even if it means letting those confined read a letter. Too often I observed the cattle train in thee busiest detention facility in the world right here in the United States and a lot of people never thought they would ever see the inside of a jail. You could be next!

  23. RNYPD says:

    How else is a child molester supposed to get pictures of little kids into jail? Way to go ACLU! Atleast you have your priorities straight. With all the problems and people being victimized you look to take care of the offenders first. Idiots!!!!!!!!! I hope that guy becomes your neighbor.

  24. Derek mckenna says:

    I strongly believe that if your break the law all your rights should be stripped away no questions ask including mail

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