State House Sound Bites

Capitol reporter Katie Meyer covers Pennsylvania politics and issues at the Pennsylvania state capitol.

The State House Sound Bites Podcast is now called State of the State and is a part of PA Post, a digital-first, citizen-focused news organization to hold Pennsylvania’s government accountable to its citizens.

ACLU sues Pennsylvania over recently tightened prison mail policy

Written by Katie Meyer | Oct 30, 2018 11:58 AM
SCI Camp Hill mail room.jpg

In this Oct. 4, 2018, photo, Pennsylvania Corrections Department mail inspector Brian Strawser sorts inmate mail at Camp Hill state prison in Camp Hill, Pa. (AP Photo/Mark Scolforo)

(Pittsburgh) -- The Pennsylvania chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union has filed two lawsuits against the state for what it sees as overly restrictive policies on legal mail sent to prisoners.

The ACLU claims the policy violates prisoners' rights to speak confidentially with their lawyers--while the Department of Corrections says it's necessary to keep out drugs.

An updated legal mail policy went into effect a few months ago after a rash of illnesses among staff that were attributed to an influx of powerful, synthetic drugs.

Instead of directly giving inmates letters from their lawyers, the DOC now photocopies them in front of recipients, then temporarily retains the original in a secure container while inmates are given the copy.

ACLU Legal Director Vic Walczak said his and other legal groups have been advised by an ethics counsel, that system isn't secure enough because corrections staff could potentially access mail.

"If lawyers can't have these kinds of controversial discussions with their clients, this goes to the very heart of our justice system," he said.

One of the suits is on behalf of an inmate at the state correctional institution at Smithfield, who's in the middle of active legal battle. His Pittsburgh-based public defender doesn't feel comfortable sending letters.

The other is on behalf of the ACLU and three additional groups that defend inmates.

Walczak noted, the organizations have issues with a lot of the DOC's recent restrictions on prisoner communications, including general mail and stricter guidelines for receiving books.

More: Updated book donation policy for PA prisons is met with skepticism

But legal mail, he said, was the most urgent. He estimated that "this really is interfering with hundreds, if not thousands of legal transactions."

He said the ACLU is aiming to fast-track the suits. They plan to move for a preliminary injunction and hope to get a hearing sometime before Christmas.

Walczak and the other complainants argue the policy is unnecessary, as instances of drugs mailed through legal letters are rare.

DOC Secretary John Wetzel doesn't contest that. He has said the policy is preemptive--he's worried that since the DOC tightened its general mail policy, drug-smugglers may try legal mail as an alternative.

A spokeswoman for the DOC didn't immediately respond to a request for comment. In previous interviews, DOC officials have said they don't intend to change the legal mail policy.

Published in News

Tagged under , ,

back to top

Give Now

Support for WITF is provided by:

Become a WITF sponsor today »

Latest News from NPR

Support for WITF is provided by:

Become a WITF sponsor today »