El Paso County Sheriff Agrees To Stop Suppressing Prisoners' First Amendment Rights
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DENVER – The El Paso County Jail today dropped its policy of restricting prisoners' outgoing mail to postcards. Faced with defending an unconstitutional policy before a judge at a hearing scheduled for Wednesday, county officials agreed to a preliminary injunction ending the postcard-only policy following a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Colorado. Chief Judge Wiley Y. Daniel of the U.S. District Court in Denver signed the order today.
Just in time for the Christmas holiday, prisoners at El Paso County Jail – most of whom are awaiting trial and have not been convicted of any crime – will once again be permitted to send letters in sealed envelopes to their children, family members, friends and loved ones.
"Today we celebrate a victory not only for the First Amendment, but for hundreds of Colorado families," said Mark Silverstein, ACLU of Colorado Legal Director. "The El Paso County Jail's 'postcard-only' policy violated the rights of both prisoners and their correspondents. Incarcerated individuals will no longer be forced to avoid personal topics such as medical, financial or relationship issues simply because their words were in plain sight for anyone to read."
Callie Gonzales, whose son Damian is currently in El Paso County Jail awaiting trial, looks forward to once again receiving letters from her eldest child. Ms. Gonzales, who used to receive three to four long letters a week from her son, says their correspondence has been significantly cut down under the "postcard-only" policy.
"Since the policy went into effect…our communications have been dramatically stifled," said Ms. Gonzalez in a recent court filing. "These postcards provide only a tiny fraction of the space he was once able to fill…It is impossible for Damian and I to remain as close we were when he was able to send letters…Damian no longer sends handmade cards or drawings to his…youngest siblings who cannot read, and for whom these drawings and cards were their most direct and loving form of communication with him."
"It shouldn't take a federal lawsuit to allow a prisoner to write a letter to his mother," said David Fathi, Director of the ACLU's National Prison Project. "The El Paso County Jail did the right thing by abandoning this unconstitutional practice; we hope that other jails with 'postcard-only' policies will do the same without waiting for litigation."
In recent months a number of jails around the United States, including one other jail in Colorado, have adopted "postcard-only" policies for prisoner mail. Today's ruling is the first in a case challenging a jail "postcard-only" policy in which the prisoners were represented by counsel throughout the lawsuit.
"Beyond their clear constitutional violations, these policies are simply counter-productive," said Rebecca Wallace, staff attorney with the ACLU of Colorado. "Letters clearly allow prisoners to maintain relationships with friends and family that will aid in their return to life after incarceration. If jail officials are serious about lowering recidivism and increasing public safety, they would do well to recognize that preserving prisoners' rights to send letters actually protects us all."
Today's court order is available online at: www.aclu.org/prisoners-rights/martinez-v-maketa-order-granting-preliminary-junction