Pa. inmates could soon regain right to private legal mail

The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections has brokered a settlement with inmate advocates who sued after a controversial system-wide mail and book policy was instituted last year to crack down on drug smuggling into prisons.

Under a tentative agreement reached Feb. 20, to be finalized within two weeks, DOC Secretary John Wetzel announced that inmates will again be allowed to receive their own legal mail starting April 6 – after it has been scanned and examined by prison staff in an “enhanced security screening procedure.”

“The DOC respects the right of attorney-client privilege and recognizes the importance of attorney-client relationships,” Wetzel said in a statement announcing the agreement. “At the same time the DOC has a responsibility to ensure that prisons are safe for those who work and live in them. We feel the plan agreed to by the parties meets both of those objectives.”

The DOC’s controversial mail policy was instituted in September 2018, following a 12-day lockdown on all mail and visits after a rash of reportedly drug-related sicknesses. (The DOC said at least 57 staff were exposed and 33 inmates fell ill due to illegal drugs over the summer of 2018, while just before the lockdown, 12 staff with symptoms of exposure tested positive for synthetic cannabinoids or other drugs.)

Inmates were barred from receiving original copies of their own mail, or books through the mail. The DOC at the time called books and mail “major avenues for drug (and other contraband) smuggling.”

Wetzel testified at a Harrisburg budget hearing on Monday that “The version of K2 that’s coming into prisons right now is a clear, odorless liquid that was either sprayed on pages, or actually injected into printer ink. So, it’s next to impossible to stop it from coming in,” WHYY reported. 

Image of a Bible sent to a Pennsylvania prison with 57 suboxone strips provided as evidence of drug smuggling into prisons. (Courtesy of PA DOC) 

Under that policy, legal mail was to be opened by prison staff in front of inmates, with photocopies given to inmates and originals destroyed. DOC officials kept copies of the mail for 45 days.

But inmate advocates called the legal mail policy an unconstitutional violation of inmates’ First Amendment right to confidential communications with legal counsel.

Bret Grote, legal director of the Abolitionist Law Center (ALC), called Pennsylvania’s legal mail policy “the only one of its kind in the nation.” Inmate advocates also argued DOC review of legal mail infringed on inmates’ rights to have confidential discussions about “sensitive matters such as medical care and sexual assault,” said Alexandra Morgan-Kurtz, a staff attorney at the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project (PILP).

“We appreciate that the department has agreed that, beginning April 6, they will stop copying and storing prisoners’ legal mail,” said attorneys from PILP, ALP, the ACLU Pennsylvania Chapter and Abolitionist Law Center in a joint statement. (The groups also filed a companion lawsuit on the same issue on behalf of inmate Davon Hayes, an inmate at State Correctional Institution Smithfield in Huntingdon, Pa.) “The revised screening procedures will respect the rights of prisoners to confidential and privileged attorney-client communications without compromising the department’s efforts to prohibit drug use in the prisons.”

Pennsylvania State Corrections Officers Association (PSCOA) president Jason Bloom said they have not yet received information on what new procedures will be in place for handling legal mail.

“If the new procedures being put into place put any corrections officer in danger — the department will have another legal fight on its hands,” Bloom said via email. “The PSCOA has worked with the administration on implementing the prior policy. … The steps Pennsylvania took in September should serve as a national example to emulate.”

The settlement marks the second concession Pennsylvania prisons have made so far to inmate advocates. While all book donations were previously banned, with only e-books to be allowed in state prisons going forward, the DOC agreed after a widespread outcry to again begin receiving book donations at a centralized facility where they are scanned and checked for contraband.

Activists and family members of inmates discuss impact of not being able to send original copies of personal letters to Pennsylvania inmates during a protest at Gov. Wolf’s Philadelphia office on Dec. 18. (Courtesy of Decarcerate PA)

But the policy regarding personal, non-legal mail, will remain in place, which requires that personal mail be sent to a private processing center in Florida. Photocopies or scans are forwarded to inmates, while the originals will continue to get destroyed. Inmate advocates have raised repeated concerns about inmates’ inability to have the experience of receiving original mail from their loved ones, and staged rallies over the issue around the holidays. But the DOC has reported no plans to change the policy on personal mail, which costs $4 million a year, Wetzel said Monday. They have said bringing mail screening in-house would cost more than outsourcing it.

“We are happy to see that the Department of Corrections is taking steps to roll back their harmful and unconstitutional legal mail policy. However, people in prison are still prohibited from receiving original letters, birthday cards, and photos, and non-legal mail is still being processed by a private company in Florida,” organizers with Decarcerate PA said in a statement. “These policies don’t keep drugs out of prisons, they just make it harder for families and communities to stay connected. We are calling on the DOC to repeal these devastating policies in their entirety.”

The DOC claims that according to its Drug Interdiction Performance Measures,” the policies have been working – with drug finds, positive drug tests, drug-related misconduct and inmate overdoses all occurring at rates lower than the one-year average leading up to the changes.

But inmate advocates still oppose them strongly.

“The outcome of this recent court victory around legal mail has forced the PA DOC to concede what everyone else already knows: which is that these new mail policies are unconstitutional, cruel, and excessive,” said Emily Abendroth, a member of Books Through Bars (BTB) and co-founder of Address This!. “We at BTB hope that this victory will soon be extended so that Pennsylvania prisoners are once again allowed to receive original copies of letters and photographs directly from their family and loved ones as well.” 
 
Stephen Wilson, an inmate at SCI Smithfield, shared the below reaction to the legal mail decision through BTB.

 

“A big thank you to the Abolitionist Law Center, the Amistad Project, the ACLU and other supporters of the fight against the onerous mail policies the PA DOC enacted this past fall,” Wilson said. “Our legal mail was being opened and copied by DOC officers. We were receiving copies of our legal mail, not the originals. The originals were stored in an undisclosed location and we were told they would be destroyed some time in the future. Last week, the courts struck down this practice. It was the work of outside supporters that made this happen. Thank you. As we continue this struggle against censorship and barriers to communicating with the outside world, to learning and growing through education, we hope to be able to continue to count on your support.”

All non-legal mail to Pennsylvania DOC inmates must be sent to:

Smart Communications/PA DOC Inmate Name/Inmate Number
Institution Name
P.O. Box 33028
St. Petersburg, FL 33733

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