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Federal Order Formalizes Agreement Between Flagler Sheriff and ACLU Ending Postcard-Only Mail at Jail

| May 2, 2014

The caged bird may sing again. (Mi Mitrika)

The caged bird may sing again. (Mi Mitrika)

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The mail restrictions were rescinded soon after the lawsuit was filed.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.

Consent Decree on Inmate Mail at Flagler County Jail

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4 Responses for “Federal Order Formalizes Agreement Between Flagler Sheriff and ACLU Ending Postcard-Only Mail at Jail”

  1. Wolley Segap says:

    It appears to me after reading this article, Fleming was following suit with other jails throughout the country as a cost saving measure. Maybe it wasn’t a good idea but maybe also, those who become inmates in the jail systems wouldn’t have to worry about such correspondence if they weren’t there in the first place. Just my opinion. Also a local jail such as Flagler’s can only house an inmate up to 364 days. Most inmates do a short time at local jails until they are either released or sentenced further and sent to prison. Im not sure the post card only mail would have a significant impact at a local jail where the turnaround is frequent compared to a prison where inmates are sentenced for long periods of time. If Flagler had a prison I would not agree with the post card only program.

    • Nancy N. says:

      It is not true that a local jail can only host an inmate for 364 days. Yes, they can only be housed in the local jail post-sentencing if their sentence is a year or less. However, most county jail inmates are in pre-trial detention, awaiting their turn in court as their case drags on. Note that none of these people have yet to be convicted of anything and some of these people aren’t even guilty – they are just waiting their turn in front of a judge and jury to prove their innocence. Especially if the case goes to trial and isn’t plead out, this can easily drag on to 18-24 months (or more) in a complicated case.

      While to you that time in jail may seem like “a short time” it’s a critical time for people’s relationships. Incarceration brings massive changes to a family, and being able to only communicate a few sentences at a time to navigate through these changes at the beginning as a family is a huge handicap to the survival of family relationships.

      • Wolley Segap says:

        Yes there may be extensions in some cases but the State has a certain amount of time to bring charges (up to 40 days) and a certain amount of time to bring the accused to trial (175 days) but you may already know that based on your apparent knowledge in your post. I agree that maybe one should be afforded the opportunity to to interact with family outside ( so long as the accused didnt commit a crime against them) to get their affairs in order. After all, the family members, especially if they have children are victims as well by way of the loss of this family member from their lives.

  2. ryan says:

    Hopefully media will put real issues like this in the forefront rather than who called who a fag on twitter. This is a real issue and treatment of prisoners. This is why it has taken the issue so long to change. Too much media silence.

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