ACLU files suit over post card policy at Jail

The American Civil Liberties Union of Florida (ACLU) and the Florida Justice Institute (FJI) today announced the filing of a federal class action lawsuit against the Santa Rosa County Sheriff. According to the ACLU and the FJI, the lawsuit challenges the constitutionality of the Sheriff’s new postcard-only policy for jail inmate mail, which was established on July 26 of this year. This new policy severely restricts the free speech rights of inmates and their friends and family to communicate with each other. The ACLU and FJI are asking the court to order Santa Rosa County Sheriff to cease the unconstitutional practice of restricting jail inmates’ ability to communicate with family and friends by limiting their mail to short, publicly viewable messages on postcards. “Writing and sharing thoughts and artwork with loved ones is one of the most important things to help keep inmates connected to their loved ones and express their reflections while incarcerated,” said ACLU staff attorney. “Under the postcard-only policy Martin Luther King Jr. could not have sent the letter he sent from the Birmingham Jail on April 16, 1963, to his fellow clergymen. This postcard-only policy punishes inmates as well as their friends and family who reside outside the jail and have not been accused of any crime.” The sheriff does not see where this policy has violated the rights of any inmates at the jail he oversees. “Our inmates enjoy all privileges and rights as dictated by law, both state and federal. It is my understanding that the ACLU’s issue has been presented before the Federal courts several times and each time the courts have ruled in favor of this practice,” He said. “We will not, nor have we ever, interfered with an inmate’s right to communicate per statutory requirement. “This practice was initiated based on two factors: the cost to the taxpayers and the security of the facility.” The lawsuit questions and challenges the policy to their right of communication. Inmates may also communicate with family via collect calls or during visitation, which is one two-hour period per week. The ACLU and FJI question the fairness due to the expense of collect calls and if a loved one is working during visitation their opportunity would be missed. Both parties to the suit against all also challenge the lack of privacy as they feel telephone and in-person conversations are easily overheard by fellow inmates, guards and other visitors, leaving closed letter correspondence as the only confidential way to communicate with family and other loved ones. “Simply because a family member is in jail doesn’t mean he ceases to be part of the family,” said the Executive Director, Florida Justice Institute. “Yet, this postcard-only policy forces them to write everything in abbreviated form, which can be read by anyone, or write nothing at all. Inmates and their families and friends need to be able to discuss issues of health and finances and exchange words of encouragement in a complete and private way. Postcards simply do not allow that. “Inmates in these situations will be effectively silenced by the Sheriff’s new policy, or risk airing personal or confidential information to others and potentially put themselves in harm’s way.” The attorney also took to task the allegation this post card only policy is saving the jail money. “Allegations that this will save the jail a lot of money miss the mark. If the government believes that it must detain a person, then it must do so responsibly the attorney said. “While it costs over $50 a day to house each inmate, switching to two meals a day or turning off the A/C are simply not options. Depriving inmates and their friends and families of their ability to effectively communicate and continue relationships is not an option either. The cost argument is a red herring to draw attention away from the real matter, which is censoring speech. “A better way to save money would be to require arrestees who present no danger to the public and are not likely to flee to show up for a hearing rather than house them in the jail at the taxpayers’ expense.” The class action lawsuit represents a fluid population of approximately 500 people who are inmates at any one time in the Santa Rosa County jail.

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