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The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania has alleged that York County Prison is trampling on inmates' rights with its mail policy — and the organization has demanded the county end the program by month's end.

The ACLU's allegations come about three weeks after it settled a lawsuit with the state Department of Corrections for a similar practice. The settlement has been agreed to, but not yet filed, and will end the practice of the prison photocopying and storing legal mail, said Vic Walczak, ACLU legal director. 

"The only place we were aware of in the entire country copying legal mail as opposed to regular mail was the Department of Corrections, and so we drew the line," he said. 

Now, Walczak said the ACLU is disappointed to find there's likely a second culprit: York County. 

Federal courts have repeatedly ruled that the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects confidential correspondence between inmates and a legal representative. The ACLU alleges York County's policy is in direct violation of that protection.

Walczak said the ACLU received complaints out of York after the state lawsuit gained public attention. According to complaints, the York County Prison is photocopying mail and opening it in front of prisoners via a remote location, Walczak said. 

"The reason you open it in front of the prisoner is so the prisoner can make sure it's not getting read, and if it's on video, what happens between the time they turn off the video and the copy is given to the prisoners? It defeats the purpose," he said.  

At this time the ACLU is not taking legal action. A letter sent to the York County Prison on Thursday, March 14, gives county officials until March 29 to stop the alleged malpractice. 

"We've had, I think, frank and positive discussions with York County Prison representatives. So I'm cautiously optimistic we will be able to resolve this without us having to file suit," Walczak said. 

York County spokesman Mark Walters acknowledged negotiations have commenced between the ACLU and the county. Walters declined to comment about the ACLU's specific allegations. 

Walters referred The York Dispatch to the York County website when asked for the county prison's mail policy. The policy states that legal representatives are authorized to send legal correspondence through email as opposed to standard mail, but it makes no mention of standard mail practices, including mail from legal representatives. 

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In September, York County Prison barred inmates from receiving non-legal paper mail, after officials suspected drug-soaked letters were causing state prisoners to overdose and illness among staff members. 

The potential drug smuggling is not a reason to begin photocopying legal mail, Walczak said. As far as an investigation into the state Department of Corrections, the number of instances of drugs coming in through "fake legal mail was tiny," he said. 

"The best proof that you don't need to do this is that there's nobody else in the country that's copying legal mail," he said. 

— Rebecca Klar can be reached at rklar@yorkdispatch.com or via Twitter @RebeccaKlar_.

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