Pa. Corrections Department settling lawsuit over contentious legal mail policy

A solitary corrections officer looks out from a tower at one corner of the state prison in Camp Hill. (Carolyn Kaster/AP Photo)

A solitary corrections officer looks out from a tower at one corner of the state prison in Camp Hill. (Carolyn Kaster/AP Photo)

This article originally appeared on PA Post.

After a day in federal court, the state Corrections Department is settling a lawsuit from the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups over increased legal mail security measures that the groups say violated inmates’ First Amendment rights.

The full details of the settlement won’t be out for at least two weeks. But the DOC has confirmed it will stop photocopying inmates’ legal mail and go back to giving them original copies.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

The DOC ordered its 24 prisons to update their legal mail procedure last fall — a move prompted by what officials say was a spike in illnesses from powerful, synthetic drugs being smuggled into the facilities.

Legal mail gets special protection under the First Amendment. It is supposed to be confidential and must be opened in the presence of its recipient.

The DOC’s new policy had corrections staff photocopy mail and give inmates the copy, then store the originals in secure boxes manned by a third-party contractor.

It was a rapid shift in procedure — one that carried a price tag of at least $20,000 for the copiers.

The American Civil Liberties Union, Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project, Abolitionist Law Center, and Amistad Law Project say photocopying and storing legal mail gives guards too many opportunities to read it — either on purpose, or inadvertently.

State ACLU Legal Director Vic Walczak said he can’t give much information on what he would have presented at trial. But he doesn’t think there was a good reason to increase legal mail security.

“Our expert, who was a former warden at San Quentin and a commissioner in the California Corrections Department, was going to testify that legal mail has not been a major source of contraband,” Walczak said.

He noted that institutions have a high burden of proof to justify increasing security in a way that might make legal mail more vulnerable to being compromised.

“We just felt that the department was not going to be able to meet that burden, so we were confident that we were going to prevail in this case,” he said. “But obviously when you settle, you have certainty.”

A federal judge heard one day of testimony at trial. Court was canceled the next day due to snow, and somewhere within that time, talks began on an agreement.

The DOC is not saying what prompted the settlement.

To date, the department has confirmed that by April 6 it will “implement an enhanced security screening procedure” that allows inmates to receive original copies of their legal correspondences.

In a statement, Secretary John Wetzel said he believes the arrangement is a good balance between protecting attorney-client privilege and drug safety.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal