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.

Trial begins this week over mail policy in state prisons

Written by Katie Meyer, Capitol Bureau Chief | Feb 18, 2019 1:57 PM

State prisons increased their mail-related security last year after a rash of drug scares. Now, the state is about to defend that decision at trial. (Photo by AP)


(Harrisburg) -- A trial is starting Tuesday in a federal court in Harrisburg over the way the state prison system delivers legal mail to prisoners.

The Department of Corrections policy was changed over fears drugs could get in, but the American Civil Liberties Union and three other prisoner-advocacy groups say it's infringing on inmates' rights.

The problem started late last summer.

In the span of a few weeks, dozens of guards and other staff in multiple state prisons started reporting symptoms the state said were consistent with accidental drug exposure. The DOC reported that a number of inmates also fell ill. 

The whole system was locked down. When the Corrections Department finally got things back to normal, new security measures were added.

One concerns legal mail. Instead of directly giving inmates letters from their lawyers, they're now photocopied in front of the recipients, and the prison temporarily retains the original.

The department maintains the retained letters are kept secure, and the practice is necessary to make sure drugs don't get in.

But the ACLU argues they can't be sure the letters aren't tampered with. They're suing on First Amendment grounds, along with the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project, Abolitionist Law Center, and Amistad Law Project.  

The trial is expected to last at least through this week.

This story has been updated to note that inmates, as well as prison staff, fell ill due to drug exposure, according to the DOC. 

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