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PLN challenges postcard-only policy at jail in Ventura County, CA

Daily Journal, Jan. 1, 2014.
PLN challenges postcard-only policy at jail in Ventura County, CA - Daily Journal 2014

Postcard-only jail policy tested

Publication sues to challenge Ventura County rule that restricts mail size

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

By Hamed Aleaziz
Daily Journal Staff Writer

A prison publication is challenging a policy that restricts incoming inmate mail at the Ventura County jail to allow only postcards.

A federal lawsuit, filed by Prison Legal News, a publication with commentary and news about current events in prisons and jails, is the latest in a line of challenges to ‘postcard-only’ policies in jails nationwide and is the second against Ventura County's policy since 2010. The publication alleges that the policy violates the First Amendment. Prison Legal News v. County of Ventura, CV14-773 (C.D. Cal., filed Jan. 31, 2014).

The policy restricts to postcards correspondence that’s not from a lawyer or a court. ‘We are trying to send a message to these sheriffs that they should get off of this postcard bandwagon, not just in Ventura County but in all the other counties around the country,’ said Ernest Galvan, a partner at Rosen, Bien, Galvan & Grunfeld LLP who represents the publication.

The Ventura County Counsel said in a statement that ‘because we are still in the process of carefully reviewing this lawsuit, it would be premature to comment on it at this time. However, the policies of the Ventura County sheriff's office are in place to maintain the safest and most secure environment for those we are charged to maintain in custody.’

Ventura County sheriff's officials have said in the past that the policy is meant to help prevent drugs, weapons or large cash amounts from entering the jail.

The policy, said Galvan, restricts inmates' ability to receive important items for post-prison life, such as forms for transitional housing and jobs. ‘Tell me when the last time you saw a bureaucratic form that would fit on a postcard. It doesn't happen,’ he said.

‘The reality is, public safety-wise, we're shooting ourselves in the foot if we cut jail inmates off from a reasonable means of communications,’ he added.

The county jail, the publication alleges in its complaint, has used the postcard-only policy to restrict its correspondence with inmates containing informational brochure packets, which feature book lists and descriptions of the publication, as well as Internet-based printouts of case law, and subscription renewal letters.

The publication itself has been banned from the jail for ‘suggestive’ items and advertisements, according to the complaint. The newspaper features ads for distributors of pictures of women in lingerie.

The last challenge to the incoming postcard-only policy, led by the Ventura County public defender's office, was denied in superior court in 2012.

Michael McMahon, chief deputy public defender in Ventura County who led that case, said that while he hopes the plaintiffs succeed, the lawsuit could face an uphill battle in court.

‘I think that there are real legal problems with the policy, but trying to get the courts to intervene in the management of a jail facility is never an easy task, so it’ll be tough litigation,’ he said.

Ventura County jail officials initially implemented the policy to be directed toward both outgoing and incoming mail, but dropped the outgoing portion of the policy soon after the public defender's office filed the lawsuit. McMahon said he believes the policy was implemented with resources in mind.

‘I think they saw it as a way to downsize the staff at the mailroom and save some money,’ he said of the policy. ‘There's a legitimate security interest and they have to keep contraband out of the jail and this policy allows them to do that more cheaply.’

Since 2012, several counties including San Diego have adopted postcard-only policies at their jails.

Similar policies, said David Fathi, director of the ACLU's National Prison Project, have been popping up across the nation.

‘The jail industry like any other industry has its fads and fashions, and ‘postcard-only policies' are the latest bad idea that's spreading around the country,’ he said. ‘We've had jails operating safely in the United States without postcard policies for 200 years, so to somehow suggest there's some urgent security need to enact these policies just doesn't pass the laugh test.’

The publication has been successful challenging postcard-only policies in other states. In 2013, they won an injunction from a federal judge stopping the Columbia County jail in Oregon from enforcing its postcard-only policy.

In Arizona, a federal judge upheld a similar policy in a county there.

The publication is now looking for a federal judge to ban the policy in Ventura County and to award damages.