ACLU: Tentative deal reached with York County over jail mail

Lindsey O'Laughlin
York Dispatch
A postal vehicle passes the York County Prison Friday, March 15, 2019. The ACLU of Pennsylvania has alleged that York County Prison is violating inmates' rights with its mail policy. Bill Kalina photo

York County has reached a tentative agreement with the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania that could overhaul how its jail handles legal mail and stave off a lawsuit, according to an ACLU attorney.

Under the proposed deal, York County would agree to discontinue its practice of copying mail addressed to inmates from their legal counsel, said ACLU attorney Sara Rose.

"At this point, based on their representations, we don't plan on filing a lawsuit," Rose said Wednesday. "Of course, we will have to wait and see how that pans out."

This past year, state Department of Corrections officials implemented a sweeping legal mail policy — which York County mirrored — that saw original drafts opened and copied by staff. The move was in response to several reported illnesses among prison staff, leading state officials to believe some mail was soaked in drugs.

The ACLU argued both the state and York County policy violated attorney-client privilege and inmates' constitutional rights. The ACLU settled its legal case with the state earlier this year, which included significant changes to mail policy at DOC facilities.

The pending agreement would mean similar reforms at York County Prison.

More:ACLU accuses York County of trampling inmates' rights

More:State Dept. of Corrections must foot the bill for legal oversight of mail program

"Staff will no longer be copying legal mail and will open legal mail in the physical presence of the inmate," Rose said.

The agreement is still in draft form and hasn't been adopted yet, said Donald Reihart, solicitor for the York County Prison Board.

Reihart declined to confirm the ACLU's assertion that the county would stop copying inmates' mail from counsel. He couldn't discuss details of the draft agreement because of security concerns, Reihart said.

"Our procedure will protect the rights of inmates but will ensure the safety of both the inmates and staff," Reihart said.

The prison board's next meeting is Tuesday, April 9.

Vice President Commissioner Doug Hoke, president of the prison board, said Wednesday he hadn't yet seen the tentative agreement but that he was glad the two sides may have resolved the issue.

Commissioner Chris Reilly said Wednesday he wasn't familiar with the details yet but that resolving the issue without a lawsuit was the county's aim. 

President Commissioner Susan Byrnes was not available Wednesday for comment.