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Spokane County, WA changes mail policy due to PLN lawsuit

Spokesman-Review, Jan. 1, 2011.
Spokane County, WA changes mail policy due to PLN lawsuit - Spokesman-Review 2011

July 20, 2011 in City

County pays $230,000 to settle suit over jail mail

Legal publication said policy infringed on free speech

John Craig The Spokesman-Review

Spokane County will pay $230,000 to settle a lawsuit over restrictions on jail inmates’ mail.

County commissioners and Sheriff’s Office officials also agreed Tuesday to abandon a policy of requiring messages from friends and families of prisoners to be written on postcards.

A consent decree negotiated with Prison Legal News also will prohibit other mail policies that county officials dropped less than a month after PLN filed suit Jan. 21.

County officials acknowledge in the consent document, which must be approved by a federal judge, that some of the policies violated prisoners’ constitutional rights to free speech and due process.

However, the agreement notes the county disputes that its postcards-only policy is unconstitutional. The county may petition to restore the policy for incoming personal mail if the U.S. Supreme Court or federal appellate courts find similar policies are permissible.

A block on publications and solicitations from Prison Legal News – an arm of the nonprofit Human Rights Defense Center – was quickly lifted last fall when PLN mailings started piling up and caught jail officials’ attention.

Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich said jail leaders decided to go ahead and deliver mail from PLN, which “has a history of suing penal institutions.”

“We self-corrected, and they sued us anyway,” Knezovich said.

Jesse Wing, a Seattle attorney who represented Prison Legal News, said he found Knezovich’s remark “troublesome” because getting PLN materials delivered was “only a fraction of what we wanted to accomplish.”

Forcing families and friends to communicate on postcards “had a pretty substantial chilling effect on speech,” Wing said.

There’s not enough room for detailed messages, he said, and guards outside the mailroom don’t “need to know that you have HIV or that your wife is having surgery or your kids are having learning difficulties.”

Knezovich said mail restrictions were imposed last year to make it easier to keep contraband from entering the Spokane County Jail and the Geiger Corrections Center.

White powder in an envelope “caused a lot of headaches” for jail personnel in 2008, and there was a similar incident in 2005, Knezovich said. Eliminating envelopes helps keep drugs and other substances from entering the jails, he said.

But the policy also blocked many magazines, regardless of content, as well as Prison Legal News publications. Deliveries were limited to a list of approved publications.

Now, jail officials must screen publications on a case-by-case basis and allow senders and recipients to appeal their decisions. The county must show it has “legitimate penological interests” in blocking materials.

Sexually explicit publications and those that promote gang activity or violence will still be prohibited, corrections Capt. John McGrath said.

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