The Pennsylvania chapter of the American Civil Liberties union has filed two lawsuits against the state for what it sees as overly restrictive policies on legal mail sent to prisoners.
The ACLU claims the policy violates prisoners’ rights to speak confidentially with their lawyers — while the state Department of Corrections has said that it is necessary to keep out drugs.
An updated policy on mail went into effect a few months ago after a rash of illnesses among staff that were attributed to an influx of powerful, synthetic drugs.
Instead of directly giving inmates letters from their lawyers, the DOC now photocopies them in front of recipients, then temporarily retains the original in a secure container while inmates are given the copy.
The ACLU and other legal groups have been advised by an ethics counsel that system isn’t secure enough because corrections staff could potentially access mail, said Vic Walczak, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania.
“If lawyers can’t have these kinds of controversial discussions with their clients, this goes to the very heart of our justice system,” he said.
One of the suits is on behalf of an inmate at the state correctional institution at Smithfield, who’s in the middle of active legal battle. His Pittsburgh-based public defender doesn’t feel comfortable sending letters.
The other is on behalf of the ACLU and three additional groups that defend inmates.
The organizations have issues with a lot of the DOC’s recent restrictions on prisoner communications, including general mail and stricter guidelines for receiving books, Walczak said.
But legal mail, he said, was the most urgent. He estimated that “this really is interfering with hundreds, if not thousands, of legal transactions.”
The ACLU is aiming to fast-track the suits with a plan to move for a preliminary injunction in hopes of getting a hearing before Christmas.
Walczak and the other complainants argue the policy is unnecessary, as instances of drugs mailed through legal letters are rare.
DOC Secretary John Wetzel doesn’t contest that, adding that the policy is pre-emptive. Since the DOC tightened its general mail policy, he’s worried that drug-smugglers may try legal mail as an alternative.
A DOC spokeswoman didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. In previous interviews, DOC officials have said they don’t intend to change the legal mail policy.