Deal near in civil rights lawsuits over prison mail policy
HARRISBURG — Pennsylvania prison officials said Friday they were close to settling two federal lawsuits over how the system processes mail sent to inmates by their lawyers.
The Department of Corrections and civil rights groups involved in the lawsuits announced a settlement was being finalized after a trial was stopped while the parties negotiated.
The policy designed to combat drug smuggling in prisons was enacted in September after an increase in inmate overdoses and prison employees seeking medical care for suspected exposure to synthetic marijuana.
A prisoner and four civil rights groups sued separately to challenge the policy. It directs prison workers to open legal mail in the inmates’ presence, give them copies and keep the originals for 45 days.
The plaintiffs argue that copying and storing prisoners’ legal mail violates the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment by interfering with attorney-client confidentiality.
Prison officials said that by early April, they expect to again provide prisoners with their original legal mail. They will no longer store a version of the documents.
“The DOC respects the right of attorney-client privilege and recognizes the importance of attorney-client relationships,” Corrections Secretary John Wetzel said in a release. “At the same time, the DOC has a responsibility to ensure that prisons are safe for those who work and live in them. We feel the plan agreed to by the parties meets both of those objectives.”
Testimony began Tuesday in the two lawsuits, which were consolidated before a federal judge in Harrisburg.
One lawsuit was filed by a Smithfield State Prison inmate, Davon Hayes, while the other lawsuit’s plaintiffs are the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, the Abolitionist Law Center, Amistad Law Project and the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project.
In a joint statement, the plaintiffs said the Corrections Department’s revised screening procedures will respect inmates’ attorney-client communications without limiting the prisons’ efforts to keep out drugs.
They have said no other state prison system copies and stores inmates’ legal mail.
The Pennsylvania prison system was put on a two-week lockdown in late August, followed by changes to mail and visiting procedures. Inmates’ non-legal mail now goes to a Florida vendor, where it is opened, scanned and then emailed to the 25 state prisons. The prisons print out the mail and distribute it to prisoners.
Officials believed smugglers had been soaking the pages of letters and books with clear, odorless synthetic marijuana to avoid detection. The policy changes also extended to visiting rooms, book purchases and prison libraries.
The head of the Pennsylvania State Corrections Officers Association said it worked with the prison system on the revised procedures but had no information on the proposed settlement.
“The steps Pennsylvania took in September should serve as a national example to emulate,” said association President Jason Bloom. “I’ll say this: If the new procedures being put into place put any corrections officer in danger, the department will have another legal fight on its hands.”