Washington Prison Mishandled Court Mail, Impeded Access to Justice
Officials delayed the delivery of critical documents for months, leading to the premature dismissal of at least two appeals filed by incarcerated men. The mistakes underscore much deeper challenges for indigent prisoners.
Christopher Blackwell Feb 15, 2023
For the first five months of 2022, Felix D’Allesandro spent his days at the Washington Corrections Center in Shelton, Washington, awaiting an update on a petition he’d filed with the state Court of Appeals. The motion, submitted in December 2021, argued that his 27-year prison sentence for a murder he committed in 2003 at age 18 had failed to consider his youth and the now well-established science around adolescent brain development and criminal behavior. After being in prison for almost his entire adulthood, the filing marked D’Allesandro’s best chance to get out before he entered his mid-40s.
Unable to afford a lawyer to assist with his appeal, D’Allesandro had filed the petition himself. But he was confident his argumentation was sound, thanks to the countless hours he’d logged in the prison’s law library. Now he just needed the courts to respond.
Months passed without news on the status of his filing. Finally, after coming out of a COVID lockdown in late May, a staffer approached D’Allesandro and handed him a white envelope from the prison’s legal liaison. Inside were two documents from the state appeals court. One, dated more than two months earlier, on March 10, informed him that his December motion—known as a personal restraint petition, or PRP—had failed to include a financial statement form necessary to waive the standard $250 filing fee. The second, dated April 14, was a “certificate of finality,” indicating that D’Allesandro’s case had been officially closed over his failure to rectify the previous issue.
There must have been a misunderstanding, D’Allesandro thought. How could he have addressed the initial paperwork issue if he wasn’t informed of it until after the deadline for a response had passed? And why had the prison taken so long to get him these crucial documents?
Over the next month, D’Allesandro and his parents scrambled to challenge the dismissal of his PRP, while pressing the state Department of Corrections (DOC) to explain the delays. Thanks to their efforts, the Court of Appeals ultimately reinstated D’Allesandro’s case. The DOC would eventually admit that bureaucratic incompetence and neglect had caused a breakdown in the system—and they’ve since claimed to have fixed the problem.
But it’s unclear how many others may have been impacted by similar issues. The Appeal spoke with one other incarcerated person at Washington Corrections Center whose PRP was also prematurely rejected due to delays in the delivery of e-filed court documents. There are likely more. But because this tangled process did the most damage to indigent people who do not have legal representation, it may be impossible to understand the full extent of the problem.
“We don’t know what’s happening because they don’t have a lawyer or anyone who’s supposed to be checking this out for them,” said Larry Jefferson, director of the Washington State Office of Public Defense, in an interview with The Appeal. “I think this is happening even more than we know.”
In 2021, Washington’s courts rolled out a new system for incarcerated people to file all legal paperwork electronically. On its face, it seemed like a good-faith effort to simplify a process that had previously relied on snail mail. E-filing gave prisoners a quicker route to send and receive documents. But the policy introduced additional layers of bureaucracy that led to unintended consequences.
Under the e-filing process, an incarcerated person must first sign up for a timeslot at their prison’s law library, allowing them to fill out and submit paperwork to the librarian. The librarian must then digitally scan those documents and submit the files through the court’s online platform. Court responses then go to an email inbox managed by the prison’s legal liaison, who is responsible for printing out the documents and routing them for hand-delivery to the intended recipient, supposedly within two business days. These timeframes are essential—as D’Allesandro’s case shows, court paperwork often contains details about strict deadlines.
When D’Allesandro received his court documents last year after more than two months of delays, he believed there had been a clear violation of DOC policy on “legal mail”—an official classification that covers certain correspondence sent from attorneys or the courts. But when D’Allesandro’s mother, Dr. Carol Welch, began pressing DOC to explain why it had taken so long to deliver the court notice to her son, they insisted that the communications did not qualify as legal mail. As a result, they were not subject to the more protected standards.
“These documents have already been filed with the courts and are not treated as confidential or as legal mail,” a DOC official wrote to Welch in an email dated June 15. In a later email, another official told Welch that “in order for communication to be considered legal mail, it must be sent in via USPS, UPS or FedEx.”
Although the rules struck Welch as arbitrary, the DOC’s classification is technically accurate “because legal mail is considered confidential,” according to Jefferson. Whereas most prison legal mail involves privileged information sent by attorneys to their clients, e-filed court documents are typically also publicly available. Court dates and other status updates are posted online, for example, though incarcerated people with highly restricted internet access cannot easily keep track of them that way.
Furthermore, just because this information isn’t confidential doesn’t mean it isn’t important. This is especially true for prisoners who don’t have an attorney to send them updates from the outside, in the form of legal mail.
“They are being denied access to counsel because in these situations they’re representing themselves. They’re effectively attorneys at this point in time,” Jefferson said. “If they don’t get the mail, then their case gets dismissed.”
In that way, the flaws of the e-filing system risk doing the most harm to incarcerated people who already experience the most challenges in accessing the courts. Many of these prisoners come from disadvantaged backgrounds and don’t have the financial resources to obtain counsel to help them mount appeals. In criminal cases, attorneys are only guaranteed for a defendant’s first appeal, but not after that. Subsequent appeals for post-conviction relief must often be handled pro se if one cannot afford to hire a lawyer.
As a result, many people in prison are forced to teach themselves the law in hopes of earning their cases a second look. It’s a tall task, made even harder by the lack of education, mental health issues, and language barriers many prisoners face.
“As I always say, you cannot apply logic to DOC policy—it just makes you crazy.” Carol Welch Felix D'Allesandro's mother
By late July, Welch was tired of excuses. Despite her efforts to press DOC officials to explain the extensive delays in her son’s court documents, they continued to stand behind the defense that the material in question was not technically legal mail.
This distinction is significant. Legal mail is generally protected under the constitutional right to access counsel in prison, and the DOC’s failure to deliver such documents could have opened the agency up to further repercussions. But even if these messages from the court weren’t officially “legal mail,” Welch says it doesn’t make sense that they would be treated with any less urgency, considering the critical nature of the information they often contain.
“It’s one of those Catch 22 situations where nothing quite makes sense, but it is so written and therefore we must follow it,” Welch told The Appeal. “As I always say, you cannot apply logic to DOC policy—it just makes you crazy.”
Finally, on July 26, Welch received an email from Tracy Schneider, the manager of mail services for DOC, explaining the cause of the delays. For months, the prison had simply not been monitoring the court e-filing inbox because “the previous staff member assigned to the position had left DOC employment,” Schneider wrote.
“Normally the backup would be responsible to ensure prompt delivery, unfortunately this did not occur for a number of reasons,” Schneider added. She went on to explain that DOC had “corrected the issue” by “assigning a primary staff member to process the incoming court emails at each facility and naming a backup, along with DOC Headquarters assigning a person to monitor all of the mailboxes statewide.”
With Welch’s advocacy and support, D’Allesandro was ultimately able to get his certificate of finality recalled. His case was reopened in July, and he is now working with an attorney from the Washington Appellate Project. The Court of Appeals recently issued an order dismissing D’Allesandro’s petition, but they are now planning to request a discretionary review in the Washington Supreme Court.
The recent news has only compounded Welch’s frustration. While DOC claims to have rectified the e-filing issue, those delays cost her son months. It’s now been more than a year since he initially filed his petition, and he’s still fighting just for the chance to get his sentence reviewed.
Welch also wonders if the DOC would have resolved their mistake without her persistent advocacy from the outside.
To Welch, the entire episode shows a disregard by DOC toward the constitutional right of people in prison to access justice.
“Why would the Washington Corrections Center not have someone check incoming email from the courts to the incarcerated individuals for more than four months?” Welch said. “How much longer would this have gone on?”
“If you give the folks attorneys, they don’t have this issue.” Larry Jefferson Director of the Washington State Office of Public Defense
To Jefferson, D’Allesandro’s ordeal is just one reflection of the broader challenges and frustrations incarcerated people face when seeking post-conviction relief without legal representation.
“If you give the folks attorneys, they don’t have this issue,” Jefferson said.
Lawmakers in Washington are seeking to address this issue with legislation that would provide state-funded legal services for incarcerated people who are filing their first PRP petition. Jefferson recently testified in support of the bill—SB 5046, introduced by Democratic state Sen. Rebecca Saldaña. He says it would help reduce the hurdles indigent prisoners face in trying to get their cases a second look.
In the meantime, DOC could also take more immediate action by updating their policy to include court e-filings as protected communications, similar to legal mail, said Jefferson.
As incarcerated people and our loved ones know, the path to accessing justice behind bars is already filled with enough roadblocks. For the most vulnerable—those who have little support and nobody to advocate for them—change can’t come fast enough.
“Effectively this is another way that we are systematically denying people access to justice,” Jefferson said. “What that means for those of us who have been marginalized is that we have even more hills to climb.”
Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the nature of constitutional guarantees of legal representation in criminal appeals. The article has been corrected to reflect the fact that attorneys are guaranteed for a defendant’s first appeal, but not for subsequent appeals.
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