Jails cut costs, boost security by limiting inmates' mail

By Jessica Leving, USA TODAY

A growing number of the nation's jails are restricting inmates' incoming mail to postcards to save money and bolster security.

The policy has been implemented this year at jails in Missouri, Kansas, Florida and Arizona, and is planned to go into effect in at least one Oregon county lockup in January. At the Marion County Jail in Oregon, the postcard policy is expected to reduce annual mail-sorting expenses by at least half — about $30,000— says Sheila Lorance, a lieutenant in the county sheriff's office. She says 15 other jails in the state are also considering it.

Elizabeth Alexander, director of the National Prison Project of the American Civil Liberties Union, says the idea is "a growing issue" and "a very dumb policy."

"It's counterproductive in terms of larger societal goals," she says. "Ninety-five percent of all convicted prisoners come back into the community. The two things research shows correlate most with staying out of trouble after release are maintaining contact with family and getting jobs. There's no way to do that through postcards."

Gwyn Smith-Ingley, executive director of the American Jail Association, a nonprofit organization representing more than 70,000 jail professionals, says these policies cut down on costs, contraband items, and "hidden messages" such as escape plans, but agrees that complicating communication with loved ones "is contrary to what we know about supporting people transitioning back to the community from jail."

At least two legal challenges to postcard-only policies have proved unsuccessful. After the Maricopa County Jail in Phoenix, instituted the policy in May 2007, a pre-trial detainee complained that it violated his First Amendment right to free speech. A district judge dismissed the case in June 2008.

A motion for temporary injunction also was filed against the policy in Pasco County, Fla., in March, but it was denied. An appeal filed in October is still under consideration.

"There is a good argument that such a limitation doesn't pass constitutional muster," says David Hudson, of the First Amendment Center of the Freedom Forum. "The decision also ignores the First Amendment rights of those who are sending materials to inmates."

"I hope challenges will continue to be made in the courtroom," said Heidi Boghosian, executive director of the National Lawyers Guild, which publishes the Jailhouse Lawyer's Handbook, a legal manual that is sent out to inmates so they can learn their rights. "This may infringe on the right to association, in that it severely limits the kind of communication (inmates) can have."