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PLN sues over mail policy at Ventura County, CA jail

Ventura County Star, Jan. 1, 2014.
PLN sues over mail policy at Ventura County, CA jail - Ventura County Star 2014

Criminal justice publication sues Ventura County over jail mail policy

By Cindy Von Quednow
Posted February 7, 2014 at 4:01 p.m.

A criminal justice publication has filed a federal lawsuit against Ventura County, alleging a jail policy that allows inmates to receive only postcards violates First Amendment rights.

The policy prevents inmates from receiving Prison Legal News and other mailings, alleges the suit, which names as defendants Sheriff Geoff Dean, Assistant Chief Gary Pentis and commanders in charge of the county’s two jails.

“We think this policy violates the First Amendment rights of people on the inside. It is bad for the public interest,” said Ernest Galvan, an attorney representing the publication that is a project of the Washington-based Human Rights Defense Center.

He said there are important documents that inmates should be able to receive that don’t fit on a postcard.

“It restricts inmates from planning for their future if they want to get into a housing program, a treatment facility, etc.,” Galvan said. “It’s not like inmates are allowed Internet access in the jail. They have to send things the old-fashioned way.”

Prison Legal News, which is sent to inmates, attorneys and others nationwide, has successfully challenged similar policies in South Carolina, Georgia and Texas, Galvan said. No other jail in California apparently has such a policy.

In a statement, the Ventura County Sheriff’s Office said the lawsuit, filed last month, is being reviewed and it is too early to comment. “The policies of the Ventura County Sheriff’s Office are in place to maintain the safest and most secure environment for those we are charged to maintain in custody,” the statement reads.

The postcard-only policy was adopted in October 2010 to prevent drugs, weapons and large amounts of cash from being smuggled into jail in envelopes, officials say.

Postcards sent to the two jails must be no larger than 6 by 11 inches. Magazines, newspapers, books, packages and booklets are allowed only if sent directly from the publisher or an authorized retail distributor, according to the Sheriff’s Office. Everything sent to the jail is subject to inspection and will be returned to the sender if it does not meet the requirements.

It’s not exactly clear why Prison Legal News is not being allowed. The publication focuses on inmate rights, court rulings and news regarding correctional facilities across the country.

Officials originally prevented inmates from sending outgoing mail in envelopes as well but later dropped the restriction.

In a 2012 lawsuit, inmates represented by the Ventura County Public Defender’s Office alleged that the receiving-postcards-only policy limited their ability to communicate with clergy, doctors, relatives and friends. The policy, however, was upheld by a Ventura County Superior Court judge.

Jeff Held, who represented the county in the 2012 case, said the policy is modeled after a similar rule in Maricopa County, Ariz., that was upheld by a federal court there.

Held said the rule has been effective in minimizing contraband sent to inmates.

“Our first goal has to be the security of the people who work at the jails,” Held said.

Brian Vogel, a Ventura-based attorney also representing Prison Legal News, did not participate in the 2012 case but said this lawsuit is different because it involves a publication.

“The parties involved are different,” Vogel said. “And while it is the same policy, it is a different lawsuit.”

Vogel said banning certain materials is becoming a trend in correctional facilities.

“Generally speaking, there’s been some movement toward isolating prisoners in the name of security, by implanting polices that end up being detrimental to their ability to communicate with the outside world,” he said.

A motion for a preliminary injunction to halt the policy until the case is decided will be heard on March 17 in a Los Angeles federal court.

Ventura County jail mail rules

• Incoming postcards must be no larger than 6 by 11 inches.

• Postcards may not be altered from their original form and cannot contain any perceived biohazard like lipstick or scents.

• All incoming mail will be processed through the Detention Services mail system and screened by security personnel.

• Mail that does not meet the requirements will be returned to the sender.

• Magazines, newspapers, books, packages or booklets will not be accepted unless sent from the publisher or directly from an authorized retail distributor.

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