By David Schor, Legal Intern, ACLU of Oregon

UPDATE: June 21, 2012 - The Medford Mail-Tribune reports today that Jackson County Sheriff Winters has reversed the jail’s mail policy and will once again treat ACLU mail to and from inmates as the privileged mail that it is. This is welcomed news but we aren’t dismissing our lawsuit just yet. We look forward to learning more specifics about the Sheriff’s plan to change the jail mail policy.

On June 6, 2012, the ACLU of Oregon filed suit in federal court to challenge Jackson County Jail’s unconstitutional inmate mail policy. The U.S. and Oregon Constitutions protect the free speech rights of inmates and those who wish to communicate with them. However, over the past two years a number of Oregon counties have adopted policies that severely restrict inmate mail. These policies have limited acceptable mail to postcards and have negatively impacted prisoners by forcing inmates to either expose private information such as passwords, bank records, intimate correspondence between spouses, and other sensitive content, or else forgo written communication on those important subjects. Even inmates who have not been convicted of any crime are subject to these restrictions during pre-trial detention. On May 29, 2012, U.S. District Court Judge Michael Simon held that Columbia County Jail’s “postcard only” policy violated the First Amendment, finding that limiting correspondence to and from jails to postcards was not rationally related to a legitimate and neutral governmental objective because it did nothing to increase jail security.

Jackson County’s legal mail policy, which allows only the “attorney of record” for an inmate to send or receive legal mail in an envelope, is a further constitutional infringement of inmates’ right to secure legal assistance, which requires access to confidential attorney correspondence. Until 2010, Jackson County Jail’s inmate mail policy allowed the ACLU to send and receive legal mail using envelopes. However, in December of 2010, Jackson County Sheriff Michael Winters amended the jail policy’s definitions to specifically target the ACLU of Oregon’s legal mail. Jackson County has since rejected legal mail from the ACLU, claiming that the ACLU is not the “attorney of record” for those inmates. This requirement would force the ACLU to file a lawsuit on an inmate’s behalf before it could even send a sealed letter to that inmate.

Jackson County appears to have made this policy change in response to inmate surveys conducted by the ACLU of Oregon investigating the general conditions of confinement in the Jackson County Jail. Despite being notified that the new policy violates the constitutional rights of inmates and attorneys, the Jail continues to reject legal mail from the ACLU of Oregon.

These severe restrictions on legal mail deny inmates and those who correspond with them their fundamental rights. Jackson County’s restrictive mail policy does not serve any public purpose, and in light of the recent success of challenges to similarly unconstitutional inmate mail policies, the ACLU of Oregon is confident that the legal mail policy of Jackson County will be struck down.

Bruce Campbell, Elisa Dozono and Jesús Miguel Palomares of Miller Nash are cooperating attorneys on this case.

ACLU sues Jackson County in dispute over inmate mail
(The Oregonian, June 8, 2012)