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PLN mentioned in article about postard-only policy at MI county jail

Muskegon Chronicle, Jan. 1, 2011.
PLN mentioned in article about postard-only policy at MI county jail - Muskegon Chronicle 2011

ACLU joins Muskegon group in opposing jail's postcard-only policy

Published: Thursday, August 18, 2011, 9:23 PM

by Eric Gaertner | Muskegon Chronicle

MUSKEGON COUNTY — The monthslong debate concerning Muskegon County Jail's postcard-only mail policy is drawing the attention of the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan and is being waged in other communities across the country.

Letters are Better, a local grassroots group that formed to oppose Sheriff Dean Roesler's jail mail policy earlier this year, and the ACLU of Michigan recently filed a Freedom of Information Act request involving the issue. Letters are Better members also continue to ask the Muskegon County Board of Commissioners to intervene.

Muskegon County Jail's postcard-only policy is one of several in Michigan and other states, and some of those policies have been challenged legally. In some cases, settlements were reached and the restrictions on mail were lessened, including one case where the postcard-only policy was voluntarily halted.

The postcard-only policy restricts incoming and outgoing mail, except for legal correspondence, to standard-sized postcards.

Roesler cited security, trying to cut down on contraband reaching the jail, and staff time needed to open and check sealed envelopes as factors in his policy decision that took effect in February. Letters are Better members contended that the policy infringes on freedom of expression for inmates and their family and friends, claiming postcards are too small for some communication and can't hold family photographs.

Representatives of Letters are Better and the ACLU of Michigan said they filed a FOIA request with the Muskegon County Sheriff's Office asking for documentation on any incidents of contraband entering the jail through letters from Jan. 1, 2005 to the present. They said the reply from the sheriff's office was the records "do not exist."

Letters are Better spokeswoman Wendy Sampson, a Muskegon resident, said based on the response to FOIA, the sheriff has been unable to "back up his argument with any proof."

Emma Murphy-Ellis, a Muskegon resident and another member of the group, alleged that the lack of documentation shows that the sheriff's argument is false.

"This law will be changed, because its only real function is to infringe on the freedom of speech of inmates and their loved ones," Murphy-Ellis said.

Dan Korobkin, staff attorney for the ACLU of Michigan, said his organization is "disturbed" by the jail's postcard-only policy and the response provided to the FOIA.

The lack of documentation of the alleged contraband problem "raises real questions in our mind, whether that justification was genuine and whether it should result in such a restriction," Korobkin said.

"We're investigating all our options," Korobkin said when asked about the opposition's next step.

Roesler said he remains comfortable with the policy and, like the sheriffs of other counties with similar policies in Michigan, he continues to keep track of the various legal challenges.

"We're keeping an eye on it," Roesler said in reference to a recent $230,000 legal settlement in Spokane County, Wash. "I've been in contact with corporate counsel (Ted Williams Jr.)."

In the six months of the policy, Roesler said it has done what it was intended to do in regard to limiting contraband reaching the jail and reducing staff time for examining envelopes. He also pointed out that an unexpected benefit is the inmates' cells are not as messy.

Another legal challenge against a postcard-only jail mail policy was filed last week by Prison Legal News against Livingston County and its sheriff. Prison Legal News, a nonprofit monthly publication that reports on criminal justice-related issues, originally filed the lawsuit against Spokane County, Wash., that resulted in a settlement and revocation of the postcard-only policy.