Check out this press release and report by the Prison Policy Initiative called Return to Sender: Postcard-Only Mail Policies in Jail.  The report documents a new and disturbing trend in the incarceration industry – postcard-only mailing policies.  This trend came to CIVIC’s attention recently when we learned the Sacramento County Jail plans to limit mail communication to postcards beginning in a couple of days on February 10, 2013.  The Sacramento County Jail contracts with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to hold immigrants in ICE custody whose immigration cases are pending.  The Sacramento County Jail or any other facility that contracts with ICE and implements a postcard-only mailing policy is in violation of ICE’s own 2011 Performance Based National Detention Standards which state that “[f]acilities shall not limit detainees to postcards and shall allow envelope mailings.”  The effect of isolation and disenfranchisment the postcard-only policy will have on immigrants and inmates who are detained will be detrimental.  See an excerpt of the report below the press release which explains in detail the many negative effects this policy will have and the untold suffering it will cause.  


Contact: Leah Sakala, (413) 527-0845, lsakala@prisonpolicy.org

Local jails should think twice before cutting off letters from home, says the research think tank Prison Policy Initiative in a new report, “Return to Sender: Postcard-only Mail Policies in Jail.”

The report argues that the growing jail trend to ban letters and restrict mail to only postcards deters communication that is essential for keeping people from reoffending after release. “Letters are one of the three main ways that people in jails maintain family ties. Phone calls are outrageously expensive, and limited visiting hours often make letters the only viable way to stay in touch,” said Leah Sakala, the report’s author and a policy analyst at the Prison Policy Initiative. “The social science research is clear — people in jail need to maintain strong outside ties to keep from coming right back after they’re released.”

Sheriffs often claim that restricting incoming and outgoing mail to postcards will reduce the time it takes to screen for contraband, but, Sakala said, “the public must insist that sheriffs balance vague claims of cost savings against the very expensive risk that individuals whose community ties have been jeopardized by the postcard-only policies will return to jail.”

The report demonstrates, often with examples from successful lawsuits, why postcards are inadequate substitutes for letters. Not only does communication via postcard cost 34 times as much as via letter, but banning envelopes forces people to choose between exposing personal information to anyone who sees the postcard or not communicating at all. “Requiring family members who want to stay in touch to pay extra and expose private information ensures that they are punished, too,” Sakala explained. “The security practices of all state and federal prisons show that correctional facilities can effectively screen mail without resorting to postcard-only policies.”

The report also finds that postcard-only mail rules contradict the best practices outlined by major professional organizations, including the American Correctional Association and the American Jail Association.

The postcard-only policy trend began five years ago with controversial Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio, and caught on at first among administrators of small county jails. Today, dozens of jails in at least 13 states have instituted postcard-only policies. Most recently, the San Diego County Jail embraced the policy in September, and the Sacramento County Jail is set to enforce its own version on February 10. Also last fall, a prison in New Mexico was poised to be the first state prison to implement a postcard-only restriction, but at the last minute the state Department of Corrections intervened and indefinitely postponed the policy.

A federal trial is currently underway in Oregon to determine if the Columbia County Jail’s postcard-only policy violates the free speech rights of incarcerated people and those who correspond with them. While the trial is ongoing, the judge has already issued a preliminary injunction against the jail’s postcard-only policy.

The report calls for jails with postcard-only policies to rescind them, and calls on state and federal agencies to refuse to contract with facilities that have postcard-only policies.

The report is available at http://www.prisonpolicy.org/postcards.

Excerpt from Report concerning Immigrants who are detained,


Sweeping postcard policies are particularly inappropriate for jails because of the diversity of functions jails serve and populations they contain. As the National Research Council of the National Academies observed, “The breadth of custodial arrangements accommodated by local jails and the dynamics of the jailed population make jails a critical feature of the justice system—albeit one that defies neat definition and measurement.”[55] For example, jails contain both juveniles and adults, people who have just been arrested and those who have been convicted, people from the surrounding area and those transferred from far away, people facing misdemeanor, criminal, and civil immigration charges, and people being held under local authority and under contract with the state or federal government. Unilateral postcard-only mail policies preemptively chill all correspondence that jail officials decide is not explicitly of a legal, or in some cases “official,” nature, regardless of how legitimately critical a letter may be for either the sender or the recipient. Crafting a postcard-only restriction that anticipates and makes exceptions for all essential communication to and from the diverse jail population is impossible. Even if such a policy were feasible, the administrative challenge and expense of implementing complex mail screening rules would surely be more of a burden for jail administrators than the process of opening envelopes.

Immigration detainees facing civil charges are one example of a population that is uniquely vulnerable in the face of postcard-only jail mail policies, as more than half of detainees are held in local jail facilities.[56] Unlike defendants in criminal cases, people facing civil immigration charges do not enjoy a right to counsel and most people facing deportation do not have access to a lawyer.[57] Individuals without a lawyer, who appearpro se in court, must navigate the entire process, from the period of detention to the aftermath of the outcome, as their own advocates. Postcard-only policies can dramatically hinder civil immigration detainees from advocating on their own behalf and arranging their affairs, and have the potential to exert a devastating impact on both the process and the outcome of immigration cases.

Because pro se immigration case advocacy requires extensive communication with family members, employers, and other community members that postcard-only policies can impede or prevent,[58] Immigrations and Customs Enforcement’s standards specifically decree that immigration detainees should not be subject to postcard-only mail restrictions.[78] Detained individuals must assemble a significant amount of written information from individuals on the outside, such as letters of support from a doctor or employer, testimony from family members, legal documents such as birth certificates or green cards, and educational documents such as diplomas, degrees, or GED certificates. Even in situations where family and community members are able to travel to the jail facility during visiting hours to assist with pro se defense, many facilities do not allow exchanges of paper or documents during in-person visits. In such situations, non-postcard mail is the only way that detained individuals can coordinate their own defense to deportation.

Additionally, detained individuals are responsible for arranging the logistics of their cases, such as securing witnesses to appear in court, submitting motions, and filling out and submitting any necessary forms and applications, some of which may need input from family members. All of these tasks are impossible to perform from any jail that prohibits people from sending or receiving full sheets of paper in envelopes to or from family and other community members. Although jail postcard policies generally include an allowance “legal” mail, and a handful of others also provide for other kinds “official” mail, jail officials have complete discretion to decide what is considered to be a legal or official matter and what is not. Even when letters to and from family members, friends, or colleagues are of the utmost legal importance, they are automatically in jeopardy of being rejected from any jail with a postcard-only policy.

Unobstructed written contact during the period of detention is particularly crucial for parents, grandparents, children, siblings, extended family members or close friends who are facing the possibility of being permanently deported from the United States. Immigration detainees in local jails are frequently involuntarily transferred away from their own communities to remote facilities that contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement.[59] When individuals are detained far from home in a jail facility with exorbitant phone calling rates, mail is often only feasible method of communication with family and friends at home.

Sweeping postcard-only policies cannot be crafted to accommodate all of the essential uses for non-postcard mail to or from a jail facility.

Impeding immigration case proceedings is just one example of the potential for harm caused by extreme and sweeping restrictions on written correspondence between people in jail and those on the outside. But while policy experts and jail officials can perhaps anticipate many of the mail needs of immigration detainees—and should ensure that facility mail policies accommodate those needs—letters to and from jail serve myriad other unforeseen legitimate purposes, which are as varied as the populations that jails contain. Simply put, sweeping postcard-only policies cannot be crafted to accommodate all of the essential uses for non-postcard mail to or from a jail facility.



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