PORTLAND, Ore. – A federal judge in Oregon has determined limiting inmates' mail to only postcards is unconstitutional, throwing into question the legality of a practice used for years in jails across the country.
For two years, the Columbia County Jail north of Portland restricted inmates' personal mail to the sending and receiving of postcards until U.S. District Court Judge Michael Simon issued an injunction that stopped the practice in May 2012.
In a ruling made public Thursday, Simon said the practice by the St. Helens jail is unconstitutional because it violates the First Amendment rights of inmates, the people who write to them, and the plaintiff, a monthly national law journal published by the Vermont-based Human Rights Defense Center.
It's the first legal precedent opponents can use in their opposition to a policy that stretches from Florida to the Arizona desert, where Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio is credited with first implementing it in 2007.
The primary reasons cited for the postcard-only mail policy are that it prevents contraband from entering the jail and it saves time for increasingly cash-strapped sheriff's offices.
In Arizona, officials said the policy was rooted in the number of drugs applied to stamps or laced into other products flowing through the jail's mail system.
"We went to postcards on incoming mail (only), and it's cut down on contraband dramatically," said Maricopa County Sheriff's Office spokesman Brandon Jones. Inmates in Maricopa County can still send regular mail.
But Simon said Oregon's Columbia County Jail had no such reasoning. The prohibited mail included legal documents sent by family members, children's report cards and bills that needed to be paid.
Columbia County Sheriff Jeff Dickerson "agreed that the postcard-only policy was not adopted in response to a known contraband problem," Simon wrote. "Defendants' postcard-only policy was a solution in search of a problem."
Simon's finding of fact in the trial -- damages will be assessed either in a settlement or by a jury -- applies exclusively to Columbia County. But Alex Friedmann of the Human Rights Defense Center said challenges to the policy in other districts that long languished from the lack of available case law can point to the Portland decision as a victory.
"This is the first time to our knowledge, and we're pretty much the go-to people on this, that this policy has gone to trial on the merits and the court has struck it down," said Friedmann, whose group is the parent company of the plaintiff, Prison Legal News.
In court documents, Columbia County said it was acting in concert with other Oregon counties, including the larger and wealthier Washington County, which includes the Nike Inc. worldwide headquarters. Washington County officials said in presentations to other sheriff's offices that the issue had been tested in courts and found to be constitutional.
"Like anything else, when you're going forward with something new, and Oregon certainly was in 2010, you go on what the court decisions are thus far," Dickerson said. The sheriff said Thursday he was unsure whether the county would appeal.
But Friedmann said the only other challenges to the policy have been from inmates representing themselves. In federal court, he said, "that's like doing brain surgery on yourself when you're not a brain surgeon."
Friedmann said that in 2010, 13 of 36 Oregon counties had the policy in place. By 2012, a survey found most counties in the state had a postcard-only policy, Yamhill County Sheriff's Office Capt. Ron Huber said.
That ended, Huber said, with Simon's injunction.
"A majority of counties were doing the postcard-only (mail), and as soon as Yamhill County got word that there were issues, it kind of just spread," said Huber, who also is the Oregon State Sheriff's Association's chairman on jail issues. "It ended pretty quick."