pen pals

How Forcing Boulder Inmates to Only Send Mail via Postcard Is Bad for the Gays

When the law throws you in jail, you automatically give up many of your rights, because you did something stupid (read: probably infringed on the rights of others) and you deserve it. But does the criminal justice system have the ability to take away your right to stay closeted in your prison correspondence?

Boulder County Jail officials in Colorado thought they struck a decent balance between privacy and security by requiring all inmates to use postcards to send outgoing mail, instead of regular sealed envelopes. (The policy was implemented in March when prison officials found at least two inmates sending “grooming” letters, typical of sex offenders, to underage girls.) But what about gay inmates who might want to write their lover back home, but don’t want to out themselves to prison guards or their fellow incarcerated? Enter an ACLU lawsuit.

Under the new policy, inmates still can send mail regarding legal and “official” matters in sealed envelopes to attorneys, medical professionals, family members and others. But Mark Silverstein, legal director of the ACLU of Colorado, said that’s not good enough. The postcard-only policy for personal mail, he said, “severely restricts prisoners’ ability to communicate with their parents, children, spouses, domestic partners, sweethearts, friends or anyone else who does not fall within the jail’s narrow exception to the newly imposed ban on outgoing letters.” “This unjustified restriction on written communications violates the rights of both the prisoners and their correspondents,” Silverstein said. “Families have a First Amendment right to receive all of their loved one’s written words, not just the few guarded sentences a prisoner can fit onto a postcard.”

[…] Before the new policy, inmates were allowed to write five three-page letters a week and were given paper, envelopes and postage by the jail. The class-action lawsuit the ACLU filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Denver lists five inmates as plaintiffs and names Hank and Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle as defendants. As a result of the postcard-only policy, according to the lawsuit, gay inmates have been “chilled” from expressing themselves when writing to their intimate partners. Inmates with HIV or other illnesses have stopped writing family members about their medical conditions, according to the ACLU, and anyone wanting to share an inspirational religious tract or a news clipping is forbidden from doing so.

The new policy also prohibits inmates from using sealed envelopes to communicate with their spiritual counselors, such as priests or rabbis. Or even Alan Chambers.