A federal judge has ruled a Baxter County Detention Center requirement that incoming personal inmate mail be written only on postcards does not violate the constitutional rights of a Florida-based human rights group in any major way.
On Thursday, United States District Judge Timothy Brooks issued a 41-page ruling in a 2017 lawsuit filed by the Human Rights Defense Center.
The lawsuit alleges the postcard only jail mail policy violated its First Amendment rights by preventing the organization from sending non-postcard-size printed material to prisoners in the Baxter County jail. HRDC also claimed its right to due process was violated when the detention center staff did not specifically tell the group its mail was being returned because of the policy.
In his ruling, Judge Brooks said the Florida group's 14th Amendment right to due process was only "technically violated" when the jail sent mail back on a single occasion in early August 2016 without an explanation as to why the mail was being rejected. He awarded HRDC $4 in damages for that one instance.
The claim of First Amendment rights violations was dismissed.
A three-day trial was held in Fayetteville beginning Jan. 30th. Baxter County Sheriff John Montgomery took the stand on the first day of the proceeding. The case was heard in a bench trial format, meaning Judge Brooks served as both judge and jury.
Sheriff Montgomery says he is very pleased with the judge's ruling.
The suit initially named Montgomery and other employees of the sheriff's office as defendants. Earlier, the court dismissed them from the suit as individuals, leaving the county as the only defendant.
The HRDC describes itself as a non-profit, charitable organization with headquarters in Lake Worth, Fla. It publishes an array of materials, including Prison Legal News. Paul Wright founded the group after he was released from prison where he served time for murdering a drug dealer during a robbery in 1987. At the time of the crime, Wright was a military policeman.
Prison Legal News is described as a 72-page "soft cover magazine" containing articles about prisons, jails, prisoners' rights and other information of interest to incarcerated individuals.
The court pointed out in one ruling the magazine also features advertisements for a variety of goods and services. Judge Brooks noted the magazine carried order forms allowing prisoners to request nude and semi-nude photographs of men and women, for example.
A ban on its publications "is particularly egregious" in the case of the Baxter County Detention Center the HRDC claims "since prisoners only have access to a few basic, tattered and out-of-date legal books" in what the HRDC describes as the jail's "milk crate" law library.
According to the human rights group, Prison Legal News goes to inmates in 2,600 correctional facilities in Arkansas and across the nation, including death row inmates and those locked up in units of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, including the "supermax" facility at Florence, Co., which the lawsuit describes as "the most secure prison in the country."
The Baxter County Detention Center adopted the postcard-only rule for inmate's personal mail in 2012. There is an exception for what is known as "legal mail" sent by or received by inmates to/from lawyers, courts and probation/parole officers. This type of mail can be put into an envelop.
There are certain rules even for this type mail, mainly a requirement for it to be addressed properly and clearly marked as legal mail. In addition, incoming legal mail must have the name and address of the court, attorney, officer of the court or government agency sending the letter.
The Florida-based group says in its suit, it sent "waves" of books, magazines and letters to a number of prisoners in the Baxter County jail as a test. It alleges "most" of the mail was returned, but the jail staff did not return other pieces, indicating the mail may have been discarded.
The returned mail either had handwritten notices stating "refused," a United States Postal Service return to sender sticker, or a stamp indicating the mail was not delivered because of the postcards-only-rule. Since 2016, the organization alleges it has sent at least 110 pieces of mail to the jail, which were not delivered.
Lawyers for Baxter County point out the Eighth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis has ruled a postcard-only-policy was acceptable. The case on which the ruling was made involved a jail in Cape Girardeau, Mo. with similar requirements on inmates' personal mail to those enforced in Baxter County.
The three judge panel cautioned, however, the ruling was not a blanket approval of the policy, and each situation where the postcard-only rule becomes an issue should be looked at on a case-by-case basis.
Other federal courts have ruled the policy is a constitutional violation. The conflicting rulings increase the likelihood the issue could wind up in the U.S. Supreme Court.
In various filings from both sides in the Baxter County case, the benefits of the postcard-only policy have been described in various ways. The court has said the benefits cited by both sides included serving as a security precaution by decreasing the amount of contraband making its way into the jail.
Various items of contraband have been slipped into the Baxter County Detention Center, including drugs concealed in a Bible and placed underneath stamps on postcards sent to an inmate.
James Owens of Conway, the attorney for the county, argued the HRDC was well aware of the postcard-only mail policy, and chose Baxter and another Arkansas county for test mailings specifically because both jails had the policy in place. The HRDC "targeted Baxter County ... for the very purpose of acquiring standing" to bring the lawsuit, Owens wrote.
On one hand, the HRDC admits it was well aware of the jail's mail policy, but maintains it should have relief based on the claim the group was not apprised its mail was being returned because it violated the postcard-only policy. The county's attorney termed this stance "a form over substance argument," which should be rejected by the court.
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