HARRISBURG - The trial in two lawsuits challenging the Pennsylvania state prison system’s policy of copying and storing mail between lawyers and their clients who are incarcerated began today in a federal courtroom in Harrisburg. The two lawsuits - one brought by four prisoners’ rights organizations and the other by a person who is incarcerated - ask the court to overturn the practice by the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (DOC) as a violation of the confidentiality guaranteed between lawyers and their clients, as protected by the First Amendment.
The department altered its process for incoming legal mail last fall, triggering the lawsuits. Under the new practice, legal mail is opened in the presence of the intended recipient and copied. The prisoner is given the copy while the prison stores the original for at least 45 days.
“The right to confidentiality between a lawyer and their client is fundamental,” said Reggie Shuford, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania. “The DOC has compromised that basic right with its policy.
“The bar for limiting First Amendment rights is extremely high, and the department has not met that standard. They’re not even close.”
The organizational plaintiffs in Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project, et al. v. Wetzel are the Abolitionist Law Center, the ACLU of Pennsylvania, Amistad Law Project, and the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project. All of the organizations have stopped communicating by mail with people who are incarcerated, based on advice from legal ethicists. The organizations are also representing Davon Hayes, a prisoner at SCI-Smithfield in Huntingdon whose communication with his lawyers representing him in his federal appeal has been compromised.
"The DOC's policy of photocopying and retaining legal mail is the only one of its kind in the country,” said Bret Grote, legal director of the Abolitionist Law Center. “It is a solution in search of a problem, and we intend to prove it utterly lacking in justification."
The lawsuit is a first-of-its-kind civil rights challenge. The plaintiffs are not aware of any other state prison system that copies and stores legal mail in the same way. Federal district court Judge John E. Jones III is presiding over the trial.
“Our ability to send confidential mail is essential to our representation of people incarcerated throughout Pennsylvania,” said Alexandra Morgan-Kurtz, staff attorney at the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project. “Our clients need to know that our discussions of sensitive matters such as medical care and sexual assault will not be compromised by the DOC.”
The legal mail policy is part of a broader set of changes to mail processing in Pennsylvania’s state prison system. The Department of Corrections now requires non-legal mail to be sent to a facility in Florida, where the mail is scanned and then emailed to the prison that houses the intended recipient.
The trial in the two cases is expected to last about a week. More information, including relevant legal documents, is available here.