ACLU-PA sues Montco for blocking attorney-client meetings in county jail

An empty jail cell

Empty jail cell (Matt Rourke/AP Photo)

Updated 5:55 p.m.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania is suing Montgomery County for what it characterizes as a violation of the First Amendment rights of those being held in the county prison.

“Jails already operate behind walls and razor wire. Montco officials are trying to make it impossible for our team to investigate ongoing constitutional violations in the county’s criminal legal system,” Reggie Shuford, executive director of ACLU-PA, said in a statement Thursday.

The federal lawsuit accuses officials at the Montgomery County Correctional Facility of barring ACLU lawyers from meeting with their clients in the prison in Eagleville, citing the need for court documentation or a letter that verifies a relationship between the lawyer and the incarcerated person. ACLU-PA says that this has been happening since March, and that there had been no issue with attorney-client meetings prior to March.

On March 5, ACLU-PA says, an attorney attached to the organization had a scheduled meeting canceled without reason. On March 11, the organization says, an ACLU-PA attorney’s online account with the prison for scheduling client visits was deactivated. When the lawyer asked why that was the case, Brian Kniezewski, the assistant director of inmate services at the facility, informed the attorney of the documentation requirement, ACLU-PA says.

“Neither the [Department of Corrections] nor any of the 66 other counties impose such unreasonable restrictions on the right of ACLU lawyers  to meet with incarcerated individuals, which raises the question, ‘What are they trying to hide?’” Witold Walczak, legal director of the ACLU-PA, said in a statement.

On March 23, ACLU-PA says, it issued a warning to jail administrators about the practice being in violation of the U.S. Constitution but never received a response.

A spokesperson for Montgomery County disputed the entirety of ACLU-PA’s argument. In a statement to WHYY News, the spokesperson said the county actually supports the organization’s access to incarcerated individuals at the Montgomery County Correctional Facility.

“Pre-COVID, Montgomery County enacted a policy in accordance with Pennsylvania Rules of Professional Conduct, which are the rules governing the conduct of all attorneys in the commonwealth, to ensure that attorneys were not able to solicit business from incarcerated individuals, and this policy applied to all lawyers, ACLU or otherwise. All incarcerated individuals are offered legal counsel during intake which includes access to a public defender or private counsel if they have it,” the spokesperson said in the statement.

According to the county, officials spoke to ACLU-PA and agreed to provide proper access, “however they chose to file the suit anyway.”

ACLU-PA says the practice at the prison is part of a targeted and deliberate campaign against an advocacy organization that has increasingly criticized Montgomery County. Last year, the group publicly slammed the County Commissioners for firing their two top public defenders after they filed a brief over cash bail. In addition, the organization filed a lawsuit against the county court system in January for overcharging people for court costs and fees.

In an interview with WHYY News Thursday, Walczak said that most recently ACLU-PA won a decision through the state Office of Open Records to obtain information regarding who was being incarcerated at the Montgomery County Correctional Facility.

“All of those things have happened recently, and so it does raise concerns about whether the detention center’s decision was in fact in retaliation for all of this litigation that we’ve instituted against the county,” Walczak said.

According to Walczak, “cutting off access” to ACLU-PA lawyers is not the way the county should handle things of this nature — especially when public interest law organizations that provide legal services to those in need are “too few.”

The federal suit filed Thursday argues that the county is violating free speech rights of the ACLU-PA and the due process rights of people who are incarcerated.

“This is not about us or our organization. This is about the people who are held at the jail, who want to report their experiences to us, in the hope that we can help vindicate their constitutional rights,” Shuford said.

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