ACLU files lawsuit against Pennsylvania prisons over legal mail policy

Cherri Gregg
October 30, 2018 - 1:36 pm



PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) -- The ALCU of Pennsylvania and other legal nonprofits have filed two lawsuits against the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections over its new policies dealing with lawyer mail. The group is seeking an immediate injunction.

The lawsuits challenge policies implemented by the DOC on October 3. Under the policy, prison officials are allowed to open legal mail, scan it to make a copy to send to the inmate, and retain the original for 45 days. The plaintiffs include an inmate in one lawsuit and four legal aid nonprofits in the second suit. Both lawsuits challenge the mail policy on the basis of the First Amendment and attorney client privilege.

"Communications between an attorney and her client are privileged and confidential between her client and herself. It allows for candid and honest discussion," said Keith Whitson, the attorney representing the plaintiffs. "The plaintiffs in these cases have been advised by legal experts that they should no longer use the mail."

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Whitson says legal nonprofit lawyers have been advised to only communicate with inmate clients in person, which is causing a significant burden and resulting in the organizations taking on fewer new cases.  He says the groups have clients incarcerated in prisons across the Commonwealth, which is adding to the time needed to represent individual clients.

"We will be filing a motion for a preliminary injunction that preserves the prior policy until a full hearing on the merits can be presented to the court," he said.

The DOC implemented the mail policy in to deal with contraband weeks after prison guards were sickened by an alleged drug they say was smuggled into the prisons via mail. The DOC issued the following statement via email:

"Correspondence entering the prison through the legal mail process was subject to same type of manipulation as the regular mail system. Individuals secreted drugs, including synthetic cannabinoids, into the contents of the legal correspondence documents in an attempt to pass the contraband into the prison."

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Whitson calls the new policy with regard to legal mail overbroad.

"There is no rational connection between the new policy and the department's new goal," he said. "The department has no reason to believe that mail from attorney is introducing hazardous substances into the facilities."

In response to a request for comment regarding the lawsuit, a spokesperson for the DOC wrote the following via email:

"The Department of Corrections is reviewing the lawsuit at this time. We remain confident that our new policy will withstand judicial scrutiny."

Lawyers for the plaintiffs said they had multiple conversations with the DOC over the new mail policy, but those discussions were not fruitful. 

Click here for a link to the lawsuits.