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Florida Jails Limit Inmate Mail to Postcards Only

To save time and resources, some Florida jails have begun preventing inmates from receiving any mail beyond a simple postcard.

Gulf Coast counties Pasco, Manatee and Lee have already adopted the policy, and Hillsborough is moving in the same direction. Alachua County's postcard rule begins in April.

Jail officials say it means corrections officers can spend more time monitoring inmates, rather than opening envelopes and searching mail for drugs, pornography and other contraband.

But Manatee County inmates and family members have filed suit in Tampa's federal court, alleging the rules violate First Amendment rights.

Manatee's policy, begun in June, even restricts writing to blue or black ink, and bars drawings of any kind. Jail officials say the restrictions prevent gang symbols and communication

Attorneys for the Manatee inmates and relatives, James E. Felman and Katherine Earle Yanes, filed a 22-page amended complaint Feb. 18 alleging the rule unfairly limits the inmates' primary means of communication.

It even prevents relatives from sending children's drawings or family pictures, the complaint alleges.

Yanes said most inmates are being detained pretrial, and haven't even been convicted of wrongdoing.

"The First Amendment protects the rights of inmates, just like it protects the rights of everyone in this country," she said. "It's not only the inmates' rights that are implicated in this, but the rights of anyone who wants to communicate to inmates."

Manatee sheriff's spokesman Dave Bristow declined to comment on the lawsuit. He couldn't specify how much money the policy had saved so far, but said the "workload is tremendously reduced."

The restrictions don't apply to legal materials involving the inmates' cases.

Doug Tobin, spokesman for the Pasco sheriff's office, said the policy is preventing much less contraband from entering the jail. Besides that, Tobin said inmates are actually getting their mail much quicker.

"We see the savings in basically being able to spend more time supervising the inmates, as opposed to spending time sifting through the mail," he said.

A Pasco inmate has also sued over the policy, but has no legal representation. The county has filed a motion to dismiss his complaint.

Case law may be on the jails' side, said John F. Stinneford, assistant professor of law at the University of Florida. Stinneford said courts have found similar jail restrictions Constitutional if they represents a legitimate government interest.

"Obviously, there are certain types of communication the prisoners won't be able to receive via postcard," Stinneford said. "But I'm not sure that is going to be a big enough of a problem to overcome.