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York County Prison adopts new legal mail policy, keeps it secret

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

The York County Prison Board adopted a new policy Tuesday to allow inmates to open and copy their own legal mail, but the board kept the full policy under wraps and will not provide a copy to either the public or the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania.

"The board’s basic position is we can’t let the inmates know how we’re trying to address preventing drugs coming into the prison," York County Commissioner Chris Reilly said. "That defeats the whole purpose of security."

A general summary of the new policy will be added to the employee handbook, said Donald Reihart, solicitor for the prison board.

The policy change balances the need for security while protecting inmates' rights, the solicitor added. The prison board adopted the policy Tuesday in a unanimous vote. 

Inmates who receive legal mail from their attorneys will now be given gloves, goggles and protective face masks and allowed to open their own legal mail under staff supervision.

Inmates will then be allowed to make copies of the documents and will either immediately shred the originals or mail them back to their attorneys while keeping the copies.

The county will spend no more than $20,000 to buy three new high-speed copiers to accommodate the policy, and the money will come out of the Inmate Telephone Revenue Fund.

The prison board made the change in response to a demand letter from the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania threatening the county with legal action over its practice of opening and copying inmates' legal mail while inmates watched via video conference from another room.

"We will be monitoring the implementation of the policy to make sure that it’s followed and that it’s not creating delays with respect to people who are incarcerated at the York County Prison getting their legal mail," said Sara Rose, a staff attorney with the ACLU of Pennsylvania.

Rose said the new policy does not appear to infringe on inmates' rights to attorney-client privilege.

But the ACLU will revisit the issue if it finds York County Prison in noncompliance with the agreement, Rose said.

Attorney Donald Reihart at his office in Springettsbury Township, Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2017. Dawn J. Sagert photo

Vice President Commissioner Doug Hoke, president of the prison board, said Reihart and York County Prison Warden Clair Doll did a good job coming up with a solution to balance inmates' constitutional rights with the security needs of the facility.

Doll declined comment, deferring instead to Reihart's remarks.

More:ACLU: Tentative deal reached with York County over jail mail

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

More:EDITORIAL: Inmates have rights, York County

Related legal action: The state Department of Corrections settled a lawsuit with the ACLU of Pennsylvania and other civil rights groups last month over the state's former policy of copying and storing inmates' legal mail at state correctional institutions.

The March settlement included detailed information about DOC's new legal mail policy, which will use attorney control numbers and secondary verification codes to confirm that legal mail is actually coming from an attorney's office.

Under the state's new procedure, DOC staff will no longer copy or store inmates' legal mail in any way, according to court documents.

The contested legal mail policies at the local and state level resulted from security concerns in August 2018 after correctional officers at several state prisons were hospitalized.

DOC reportedly suspected the officers were exposed to letters or books that had been soaked in a liquid form of synthetic marijuana in order to be smuggled into the prison via the mail system.

Non-legal mail sent to state prisons is now forwarded to a digital vendor that scans and emails a digital copy of the correspondence to the appropriate institution for delivery.

Public access: Because the county instituted its video-conference legal mail policy in response to dangerous contraband entering state prisons through the mail system, Melissa Melewsky, media law counsel for the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association, said there could be a valid argument for keeping some parts of the new policy from public disclosure.

"There will be a considerable deference given to safety concerns as part of the Right to Know Law because of the facts that have resulted in the issues and the policies and the lawsuits," she said.

But Melewsky said she isn't sure the security risks would justify keeping the entire policy from the public.

The policy may have sensitive information mixed with nonsensitive material that should be available to the public.

"In that case, the prison would be able to redact those portions and would be able to release the remainder," Melewsky said.

The York Dispatch filed a Right to Know request on Tuesday, April 9, seeking a redacted copy of the report.