Supporters of the First Amendment recently won a battle in the ongoing war over restrictions on prisoners’ mail. On Sept. 10, U.S. Magistrate Judge J. Richard Creatura entered a preliminary injunction prohibiting Lewis County from restricting incoming and outgoing mail at its jail to only postcards. The injunction also requires the county to provide notice of rejected mail to both the sender and recipient, and the county must refer appeals to an official other than the person who made the original rejection decision.
Lewis County, located in Southwest Washington, is home to the cities of Chehalis and Centralia. The county has a population of 75,000.
For the last four years, Lewis County Jail has had a postcard-only policy. Until this month’s ruling, prisoners were not able to write to or receive letters from their spouses, children, parents or friends. They could not receive copies of their children’s report cards, photographs or copies of bills. Prisoners could not correspond privately with their families about medical issues, business matters or their family relationships. They were restricted from receiving letters from schools, religious organizations and advocacy groups. It’s important to note that some prisoners held in the Lewis County Jail are pre-trail detainees who have been charged with but not convicted of a crime.
Other detention facilities in Washington, including state prisons, King County Jail, Pierce County Jail and Spokane County Jail, do not have postcard-only policies, they inspect incoming letters, just as the Lewis County Jail did prior to implementation of its postcard-only policy in 2010.
The First Amendment right to free speech applies to everyone, including those accused of crimes. There is no footnote that excludes prisoners. Restrictions on mail received by prisoners also limit what people who are not in jail can send to their incarcerated loved ones. Government officials have no legitimate reason to impose blanket restrictions on such correspondence.
Judge Creatura noted this in his order when he wrote, “First Amendment rights are too important to be subject to such arbitrariness.”
Research has consistently shown that greater communication between prisoners and their families has a rehabilitative effect that results in decreased recidivism. For example, practices that “facilitate and strengthen family connections during incarceration” can “reduce the strain of parental separation, reduce recidivism rates, and increase the likelihood of successful re-entry” of prisoners, according to a 2005 report by the Re-Entry Policy Council, a public-private partnership funded in part by the U.S. Department of Justice.
The ability of prisoners to send and receive letters is particularly important because jail phone calls are expensive. A 15-minute non-local call within the state from Lewis County Jail costs $4.30 to $11.85, depending on where the prisoner is calling. The jail only allows video visitation rather than in-person visits, and a 20-minute video visit costs $10. The jail receives a kickback from the telephone provider on revenues generated from prison telephone calls and video visitations. Prisoners’ families often cannot afford to communicate by phone or video on a regular basis. Thus, letters are often the only way for prisoners to maintain family ties while they are incarcerated.
In September 2013, the Lewis County Jail rejected correspondence sent to prisoners by Prison Legal News (PLN), a monthly publication that reports on criminal justice issues. PLN filed suit in federal court, resulting in Judge Creatura’s recent ruling. The case remains pending, with PLN asserting that the jail’s postcard-only policy violates its right to communicate with prisoners at the facility. PLN has a history of standing up for the First Amendment rights of Washington prisoners and their families. It has successfully challenged publication bans and postcard-only policies at the jails in Chelan and Spokane counties.
Research continues to support, and detention facilities much larger than the Lewis County Jail understand the importance of prisoners being able to communicate while incarcerated. Judge Creatura understands this too. It’s time that Lew County officials also come to this realization.
Full title: After a four-year restriction on inmate correspondence, prisoners in Lewis County Jail can now send and get mail