Civil Rights Advocates Settle Lawsuit With PA Department of Corrections Over Legal Mail Policy

March 25, 2019
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HARRISBURG – The team of public interest lawyers who brought two federal civil rights challenges against the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections for its policy of copying and storing legal mail announced today that they had reached the final terms of a settlement with the department. The settlement was finalized in a filing with the federal district court overseeing the cases.

“We are excited to return our resources to providing confidential legal advice to the thousands of people in DOC custody.” said Alexandra Morgan-Kurtz, staff attorney for the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project. “Legal mail is a vital form of communication, and we look forward to working with the department to ensure it is reaching our clients in a confidential and efficient manner.”

The lawsuits were filed in October after the department changed its process for handling mail between lawyers and people who are incarcerated in state prisons. Under the new policy, legal mail was opened and then copied in the presence of the prisoner. The prisoner was given the copy while the original was stored in a locked container, which was accessible to prison staff.

Four prisoners’ rights groups – the Abolitionist Law Center, Amistad Law Project, the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, and the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project – filed one of the challenges, arguing that the policy compromised confidentiality between lawyers and their clients in state prisons. The second lawsuit was filed by a person who is incarcerated in a state prison. He is represented by lawyers from the four public interest organizations and Keith Whitson of Schnader Harrison Segal & Lewis LLP.

“This policy was a bad idea from the start,” said Witold Walczak, legal director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. “In the department’s process, there was too much risk that prison staff could read mail between lawyers and their clients. And the department never provided credible evidence that legal mail was a serious source of contraband. We’re grateful that we persuaded the department to step back from this policy.”

In February, a hearing convened before federal Judge John E. Jones III in Harrisburg, and after one day of testimony, settlement talks between the challengers and the department began. After two days of discussions, the department agreed to stop copying and storing legal mail within 45 days.

Today’s filing memorialized the agreement with additional terms. The department has agreed to stop copying prisoners’ legal mail by April 5. The department will also implement additional verification systems for lawyers and courts, which do not raise the same confidentiality concerns as the challenged policy did, according to the plaintiffs. And the organizations that challenged the policy will be allowed to monitor the new legal mail system for two years to ensure that it does not infringe on attorney-client confidentiality or otherwise interfere with attorney-client communications.

"Attorney-client confidentiality should not be collateral damage of the DOC's war on drugs,” said Bret Grote, legal director of the Abolitionist Law Center. “This legal mail settlement is a necessary first step in ensuring incarcerated persons are able to exercise their constitutional right to counsel without worrying about privacy concerns or their personal information being stored. The DOC should now review their general communication policies to allow loved ones of those who are incarcerated similar possibilities.”

More information about the case, including a copy of today’s settlement agreement, is available at aclupa.org/PILP.

Category: Prisoners' Rights
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