Blog of Rights

You've Got (No) Mail

By Ivy Kough, ACLU at 1:42pm

Prior to March of 2010, prisoners at the Boulder County Jail were allowed to send five three-page letters a week to people in the outside world with the paper, envelope and postage covered by the jail. But jail officials cracked down on outgoing mail in March after a couple of prisoners managed to send letters to Boulder-area children in envelopes that didn't bear the usual warning that the mailing originated from the Boulder Jail. The response of jail officials was to subject prisoners to a new, unconstitutional policy restricting the length, format and content of all mail they sent out. Now, prisoners are only allowed to use postcards provided by the prison and they are provided an envelope only if their communication is deemed to be "official" or "legal." This policy takes away any privacy prisoners previously had relied upon in the past, and prevents them from communicating freely in terms of content and length with family members, friends, significant others, or anyone else they contact. The ACLU's National Prison Project and the ACLU of Colorado last week filed a lawsuit against Boulder County Jail officials for enacting this "Postcard Policy" on the grounds that it violates the First Amendment rights of both the prisoners and their families.

Prisoners' ability to communicate with the outside world is crucial for them to maintain relationships with their family and loved ones. The size of the postcard allows for one-twelfth of the amount of space prisoners had access to prior to March of 2010. The postcard format also allows anyone either in the prison who handles the mail or in the towns or homes of the addressee to read the information prisoners choose to divulge. As a result of the policy, prisoners are unable to relay important and sensitive messages about private issues such as their health or relationship issues. This new policy also prevents prisoners from seeking guidance from clergy members, or providing information to investigative reporters.

Prisoners should not be forced to omit sensitive information from their correspondence for fear of others reading it. Under the "Postcard Policy," prisoners' emotional relationships are inhibited and they are denied the ability to tend to practical issues in the outside world, affecting their lives in prison and their ability to transition back into society upon release. The ACLU's class action lawsuit hopes to restore to the prisoners of Boulder County Jail their First Amendment rights and reopen important lines of communication to the outside world.

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