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Judge directs watchdog group, Adams County to reach solution over inmate mail

Colorado Politics, Oct. 28, 2020.

A prison watchdog group and Adams County will have an opportunity to resolve allegations that the county jail is censoring mail to inmates, after a federal judge directed them to clear up any misunderstanding of jail policies.

“Especially when litigation is complicated by pandemic-related issues, it seems like this is a perfect case to create an informal method to bridge the information gap to give plaintiffs assurance that it needs regarding mailroom policies,” said U.S. District Court Chief Judge Philip A. Brimmer during a hearing on Wednesday morning.

The hearing was originally scheduled for Brimmer to consider granting a preliminary injunction to the Florida-based Human Rights Defense Center against the Adams County Detention Facility. HRDC, which advocates for prison reform policies and also mails publications providing legal, self-help and COVID-19 information to inmates across the country, accused the county jail of censoring its materials and failing to provide notice or adequate explanation of rejected mailings.

HRDC included in its court filing a handwritten note from one inmate complaining about his failure to receive one of the magazines. A jail official noted the magazine was “published material w/staples (contraband).” The group cited 32 such instances since June 2019 in its federal complaint. HRDC argued that failing to deliver its publications violated the organization's free speech rights under the First Amendment.

“There is no censorship of any of the plaintiff’s publications,” said assistant county attorney Kerri A. Booth at the hearing. She acknowledged some mail was returned “for a small number of reasons,” but clarified that staples, according to a new policy dating to February, are now removed and the publications forwarded directly to inmates after processing.

“What are we doing today?” Brimmer asked both parties. “It would seem to me that if there’s no policy of excluding plaintiff's publications based on their content or because of the fact that they have staples, then all we’re trying to do is really figure out what those various reasons are for them being rejected.”

Brimmer wondered whether it would be more practical for the parties to share information about what was happening in the mailroom than for him to issue an injunction preventing Adams County from continuing its alleged practice of withholding mail.

J. Matthew Thornton, representing HRDC, said he was open to a “pragmatic approach,” but still had concerns about the magazines being labeled as unauthorized material and inmates required to send a written request, known as a “kite,” to receive them.

“If that’s no longer the policy, that would be news to us,” he said. Thornton agreed that the jail could intervene in correspondence that was a security risk, but asked Adams County to inform HRDC of the situation.

“If the publications aren’t being rejected because of staples or content, it seems like...interviewing people who work in the mailroom would bridge that information gap that plaintiffs have and allow the parties to work out a practical solution," Brimmer said. "It doesn’t seem very hard.” 

Booth explained that the publications, with staples removed, are now classified as legal mail given directly to inmates. She acknowledged there existed a gap in understanding between the two parties about policies.

The hearing, slated to run for several hours, wrapped up in under 30 minutes as Brimmer decided to continue the hearing indefinitely and give the parties a chance to reach an understanding.

The case is Human Rights Defense Center v. Adams County, et al.

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