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Washington DOC whines about losing PLN bulk mail censorship suit

Seattle Times, Jan. 1, 2003.
Washington DOC whines about losing PLN bulk mail censorship suit - Seattle Times 2003

The Seattle Times

July 23, 2003

Ruling to tax prison mailroom

A court decision to let inmates get bulk mail means extra work for Monroe staffers.

Christopher Schwarzen; Times Snohomish County bureau


MONROE Packed away in a former chicken coop and up to their arms in envelopes, containers and boxes, six mailroom employees at the Monroe Correctional Complex are about to get busier.

Come Aug. 16, the amount of mail each of the prison's 2,500 or so inmates can receive will increase. That's when inmates will again receive catalogs and other bulk mail, a right denied them by a state Department of Corrections policy written in 1999.

Paul Wright, 38, an inmate at Monroe's minimum-security unit, won a lawsuit against the department last month on the argument that the denial of bulk mail was a violation of free-speech rights. A federal district judge in Seattle ruled that the prison still could censor certain material found in the incoming mail but must deliver bulk mail mass mailings often from marketing and nonprofit organizations.

Each day, the mailroom employees perform the tedious task of opening every piece of mail that inmates receive at the Monroe prison. Bulk mail such as credit-card applications and catalogs are immediately discarded. Other mail deemed inappropriate, including clothing or money, is sent back unless inmates successfully appeal its withholding.

What mailroom employees fear with the recent federal-court ruling is that the increased mail will prevent them from adequately examining each piece for pornographic material, notes about potential escapes, or other inappropriate material or contraband.

"The last time the inmates were able to receive bulk mail and catalogs, each of the four units here had their own mailroom and probably more staff than we have here," said Sgt. S. Gamble, a mailroom employee. "Now there's only one mailroom, and the population is much larger."

Gamble said he hopes the prison will hire more mailroom workers to accommodate the larger loads. In addition to sifting through inmates' mail, the staff sorts and delivers mail to 1,200 employees. Employee mail, however, is not searched or censored.

"We need more people," Gamble said. "I think that request is coming soon."

But Wright, the editor of the Prison Legal News, a newspaper that is distributed to about 3,400 inmates nationwide and focuses on prison policies, said he isn't concerned about the additional load this will place on the staff.

"California, with 160,000 inmates, and Texas, with about 150,000 prisoners, doesn't ban bulk mail," Wright said. "It's all nonsense. We've sued other states like Oregon and Utah and been successful there, too."

Wright said he realizes inmates can't apply for credit cards, but he said 85 percent of all prison bulk mail comes from religious organizations, which can't afford to send mail any other way. The state's recently overturned policy had even cut into subscriptions of his newspaper.

"Our new subscription and renewal notices were treated as bulk mail," Wright said, meaning prisoners weren't receiving solicitations for the newspaper.

Prison officials worry the courts also will expect them to increase the amount of mail inmates can keep in their cells. Corrections Department policy allows inmates to keep one 18-by-12-by-10-inch box for books and periodicals, and a smaller box can contain mail and papers.

"It amounts to a fire hazard," said Marjorie Petersen, a spokeswoman for the Monroe prison. "We also worry about contraband."

The Corrections Department, which is appealing the court decision, has until Aug. 16 to rewrite its statewide policy on bulk mail and catalogs.
Petersen said that's little time to put a new policy in place.

"Right now, we're really having to scrutinize how to do that," she said.

Wright, who is to be released from prison in December after completing time for a murder conviction, said he plans to continue editing his publication and challenging prison policies that he said deny inmates' rights.

"I think inmates are going to exercise their right to receive bulk mail, and companies are going to want to send it," he said. "The thing is, there's about 2 million people locked up, and that makes prisoners a very large market."

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