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Thursday November 20th 2014

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Court Ends Santa Rosa County Sheriff’s
“Postcard Only” Mail Policy

PENSACOLA – Federal judge Casey Rodgers signed an order yesterday reversing the Santa Rosa County Sheriff’s “post card only” mail policy and ordering the jail to again allow inmates to exchange letters through the U.S. mail – the result of a legal challenge to the policy brought by the ACLU of Florida and the Florida Justice Institute (FJI).

Judge Rodgers’s consent order approves an agreement between jail inmates and the Santa Rosa County Sheriff. According to the Court’s order, inmates in the Santa Rosa County Jail will now be able to send unlimited, regular letters. The Sheriff, who is responsible for administering the jail, must also provide writing materials to indigent inmates. The Sheriff has also agreed to pay $135,000 in attorney’s fees and costs to the ACLU and FJI for their efforts in securing the judgment.

“Today’s ruling should be a clear sign that limiting or restricting the speech of people in jail and policies is illegal, will be challenged and the costs can be significant.” said Benjamin Stevenson, ACLU of Florida staff attorney based in Pensacola. “It’s equally important to remember that free speech rights work both ways – the government can’t restrict your right to speak to others or restrict the way you receive information.”

The ACLU and FJI filed a federal suit in September, 2010 alleging that the policy restricting jail inmates’ ability to communicate with family and friends by limiting their mail to short, publicly viewable messages on postcards was a violation of their First Amendment right to free speech. The postcard only policy, the ACLU and FJI argued, was the paper equivalent of restricting inmates to communicate by tweet.

“It’s a major victory for the ability of citizens to exercise their right to speak without government oversight and interference – rights people retain even in jail,” said Joshua Glickman, an attorney for FJI. “By striking down the policy, the Court has made it clear that jail and prison rules which stifle free speech are not permitted.”

Communication through mail is inmates’ only form of communication when family members are a long distance away, and the only available telephone calls—collect calls —are very costly. Jails frequently severely limit in person visits so that those who live close enough to come to jail must do so at restrictive, set times that may conflict with work schedules. Both telephone and in-person conversations are easily overheard by fellow inmates, guards and other visitors, leaving closed letter correspondence as the only private way to communicate with family and other loved ones.

“Under a postcard-only policy, Martin Luther King Jr. could not have sent his famous letter from the Birmingham Jail in 1963,” said Stevenson. “It’s not just about a specific inmate being unable to communicate – everyone suffers when people can’t share ideas.”

Not only does a “post card only” policy infringe on Constitutional rights, it may be an obstacle to allowing former offenders to smoothly and successfully re-enter the community. Keeping close, personal ties with friends, family and community members outside the jail allows an inmate to remain connected to and invested in a community – reducing the likelihood of committing new crimes and returning to jail or prison.

“Simply because someone is in jail doesn’t mean they cease to be part of their family,” said Randall C. Berg, Jr., Executive Director of the FJI. “Yet, this postcard-only policy forced them to choose between writing everything in a very public and abbreviated form or writing nothing at all.”