A challenge to Pennsylvania prisons’ legal mail policy
In October, Lori Robinson told the Philadelphia Inquirer about a stack of her child’s drawings building up at home. Her 7-year-old was making the pictures to send to his father, serving a life sentence in Pennsylvania prisons. Under new prison mail policies, the boy’s drawings could not be sent directly to his father. They would instead have to be mailed to a processing facility in Florida, where they would be “scanned, digitally forwarded to printers at each state prison and stored indefinitely for ongoing surveillance purposes.” Hakeem Robinson would receive printouts of a scan of his son’s drawings and the drawings themselves would remain in storage at the Florida plant. Lori Robinson couldn’t reconcile herself to that process. “It’s good for him to develop those skills, and he would always mail them to his dad. … But I’m not comfortable with that anymore. I don’t want my 7-year-old autistic child’s stuff to be able to be searched in some database in Florida.” [Samantha Melamed / Philadelphia Inquirer]
Under the policy that the corrections department adopted in September, people in prison can receive no drawings or cards or photographs or letters from their families and friends, only black and white copies of them, while the originals remain in that faraway Florida plant; they cannot receive books, whether from individual senders or directly from Amazon; and prison staff will make copies of their legal mail to give them, while originals are stored at the prison for 45 days. These restrictions, in effect nowhere else in the country, complicate the already herculean task of staying in touch with an incarcerated loved one, limit access to books, and erase the right to confidentiality in attorney-client communication. [Victoria Law / Bloomberg Businessweek]
Immediately after the policy went into effect, several legal organizations instructed their attorneys to stop sending mail to clients. The Abolitionist Law Center, the ACLU of Pennsylvania, and the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project wrote a letter addressed to the chief counsel of the Department of Corrections. Referencing a meeting with him the previous week, they said, “The procedures you describe simply do not reasonably protect the rights of the men and women incarcerated within DOC.” Furthermore, “experts in professional ethics have advised us that the DOC’s new process for handling legal mail raises sufficient confidentiality concerns that we should not continue to communicate privileged information with clients incarcerated in state prisons via mail.” Although they hoped it would not be necessary, the organizations were preparing a federal challenge. [Raven Rakia / The Appeal]
The harsh, even life-altering, and constitutionally suspect restrictions on mail, including legal mail, were implemented in response to concerns that drugs were being sent into prisons. The clampdown was announced after 58 corrections staff members fell ill after handling mail that contained synthetic cannabinoids. But medical toxicologists were skeptical of the connection between the illnesses and exposure to the cannabinoids. A more likely explanation, they hypothesized, was “mass psychogenic illness,” or symptoms more consistent with anxiety.
Others questioned why the department was more focused on preventing the entry of drugs than providing treatment in prisons. Abraham Gutman of the Philadelphia Inquirer pointed out that “without access to effective addiction treatment, which includes medications that are not accessible in Pennsylvania prisons, people in addiction turn to drastic measures such as smuggling drugs.” In some cases “the drugs smuggled are actually medications” for the treatment of substance-use disorders. The medication-assisted treatment (MAT) program’s statewide coordinator for the corrections department told Gutman, “If you would treat individuals for their substance-use disorder, you would likely reduce the black market.” [Abraham Gutman / Philadelphia Inquirer]
In October, as the Pennsylvania corrections department continued with its new mail policy, the advocacy organizations sued, seeking an injunction. Two lawsuits were filed, one on behalf of an individual in prison and the other for four organizations, claiming that the policy undermines attorney-client privilege in violation of the First Amendment rights of people and their attorneys. The lawsuits are part of broader challenges to the mail policy. Yesterday was the first day of a hearing in federal court in Harrisburg. Among those who testified was an assistant federal public defender who said she is now unable to write to her 15 clients on Pennsylvania’s death row. The effect on her representation, she said, has been “stifling.” [Katie Meyer / WITF]
Kerry Marshall, who is in prison in Pennsylvania, is one of the people expected to testify. Marshall has three cases underway, one regarding his religious rights, a federal appeal, and a state court case. “The policy has interfered with his ability to have substantive conversations with his attorneys on all of his cases,” his civil rights attorney told the Inquirer. In her case with Marshall, she was unable to communicate via mail about a proposed settlement and could not arrange a sufficiently long phone conversation to discuss it. “The alternatives available to communicate with clients in the DOC really aren’t reasonable alternatives at all,” she said. [Samantha Melamed / Philadelphia Inquirer]