Jail’s Mail-Censorship Ruled Unconstitutional

     (CN) – The Sixth Circuit upheld an injunction against a Michigan jail’s practice of not delivering legal mail to inmates unless sent by their current attorneys of record.
     Livingston County Jail, located in Howell, Mich., requires all nonlegal mail be written on a plain 4-by-6 postcard with no image.
     Legal mail, however, may be sent in a sealed envelope, and the jail’s policy states that such mail shall be opened in the inmate’s presence.
     But the American Civil Liberties Union Fund of Michigan claims that it sent letters enclosed in sealed envelopes marked “Legal Mail” to 25 inmates at Livingston County Jail, and none of the letters were delivered.
     The jail’s policy does not state that only mail from an inmate’s attorney of record qualifies as “legal mail,” but this is how the jail administrator has enforced the mail policy in practice, the ACLU contends.
     If an out-of-county attorney wrote to more than one inmate, the administrator allegedly treated such mail as a “solicitation” rather than legal mail.
     The ACLU also said that the jail did not inform it or the recipients that the letters were not delivered. Its mailings were directly related to the jail’s mail policy, and inquired whether the inmates would be willing to meet with an ACLU attorney to participate in a potential lawsuit against the jail.
     A federal judge granted the ACLU a preliminary injunction on its claims that the jail’s actions violated the First and 14th Amendments, and the Sixth Circuit upheld the ruling Tuesday.
     “We reject the defendants’ overly restrictive interpretation of legal mail as contrary to our precedent and an unnecessary impingement on important First Amendment rights,” Judge Karen Nelson Moore wrote for a three-judge panel in Cincinnati.
     Mail may qualify as legal mail even if there is no existing attorney-client relationship between the sender and the inmate, the opinion states.
     Sixth Circuit precedent defines legal mail as “correspondence that impacts upon or has import for the prisoner’s legal rights, the attorney-client privilege, or the right of access to the courts.”
     In this case, “the ACLU’s letters are precisely the type of communication that an attorney and an inmate would want kept confidential – the letters were addressed to a specific inmate, clearly marked ‘legal mail,’ and included the name and bar number of a licensed Michigan attorney,” Moore said. “Moreover, the substance of the letters indicated that the ACLU believed that the jail’s mail policy was unconstitutional, offered legal advice and assistance to the inmates, and noted the possibility of bringing a future legal action attacking the constitutionality of the jail’s mail policy.”
     The ACLU’s letters sought to inform inmates of a potential violation of their civil rights, and to determine whether an actionable claim existed.
     “A system in which the jail may first independently screen the substance of the legal communication from an attorney to a specific inmate regarding the constitutionality of jail policies would defeat the very reason to protect legal mail – to safeguard sensitive and confidential legal communication,” Moore said.
     The court said it is also evident from precedent that a mail-censorship regulation must provide notice to the mail’s recipient that the mail was not delivered, and provide the inmate with the opportunity to contest the decision – but the jail did neither.

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