The Wyandotte County jail this week became the latest U.S. correctional facility to come under fire for limiting inmate correspondence to postcards.
In a class-action lawsuit filed Monday, lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union and the Social Justice Law Collective said the jail’s postcard-only policy restricted the constitutional rights of inmates to freely communicate with friends and family.
Doug Bonney, legal director for the ACLU of Kansas and Western Missouri, said in the lawsuit that the jail’s policy would have blocked some of history’s greatest letters.
“Under that policy Martin Luther King Jr. could not have sent the now-famous letter he sent from the Birmingham Jail on April 16, 1963, to his fellow clergymen,” the lawsuit argued. “Nor could the Apostle Paul have sent his epistles to his fellow Christians while imprisoned by the Romans.”
The lawsuit argued that inmates are inhibited from sharing personal, legal and health information with friends and family if they fear that others can easily read the postcards.
And sometimes, a postcard just isn’t big enough to contain all of an inmate’s musings.
“Jail inmates and their outside correspondents must express these messages in an abbreviated and incomplete form, as there is insufficient room on the postcard to fully develop and communicate the inmates’ thoughts and ideas,” the suit argued.
Wyandotte County Sheriff Donald Ash, the suit’s sole defendant, could not be reach for comment Tuesday.
The practice of limiting inmate correspondence to postcards first was instituted in Maricopa County, Ariz., in 2007 by Sheriff Joe Arpaio, according to a February study by the Prison Policy Initiative.
Law enforcement often has cited concerns about jail security and contraband as justifications for the policies. But some jails have retreated from postcard-only policies as lawsuits, and even the threats of lawsuits, have been made, Bonney said.
At least two counties each in Missouri and Kansas have dumped postcard-only mail policies when faced with potential litigation, Bonney said. And last year, an Oregon federal judge blocked the Columbia County jail from enforcing its 2-year-old postcard-only policy, saying it violated the prisoners’ free-speech rights, according to the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University.