Three weeks ago, the state prison system settled a lawsuit brought by the ACLU and other groups who said the Department of Corrections was violating inmates’ constitutional rights by making copies of legal mail.
Now, the ACLU says York County Prison is doing the same thing — and it wants the practice to stop.
A county spokesman confirmed that officials are negotiating with the ACLU.
The ACLU began looking into the York policy soon after lawyers settled the state lawsuit.
Legal director Vic Walczak said they confirmed mail was being copied in conversations with incarcerated people who had complained, and with county Prison Board Solicitor Donald Reihart.
The conflicts over legal mail date back to late August 2018, when the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections locked down all its prisons over a reported spike in staff illnesses that officials blamed on drugs being smuggled in.
Soon after, state prisons tightened security. One of the new measures involved having staff copy letters from inmates’ lawyers.
The letter-opening and photocopying happened while inmates were in the room. The recipient would get a copy of their mail, a staffer would tape up the original, and it would be stored temporarily in a secure box managed by an independent contractor before being destroyed.
In early September, soon after the state prison lockdown and after an inmate overdosed, the York County Prison said it was suspending all non-legal mail. A couple weeks later, county commissioners voted to switch completely to electronic mail for non-legal matters.
Legal mail wasn’t mentioned. But Walczak said “it appears that they patterned what they were doing based on what the DOC was doing.”
“It’s pretty much a cheap imitation,” he added. “They didn’t even try to take the precautions that the DOC was taking to try to maintain confidentiality.”
Where the DOC was opening mail in view of inmates and then storing it securely, Walczak said he doesn’t believe the county prison had any such safeguards.
He said when the ACLU requested a copy of the legal mail policy, they were instead given “a copy of a letter that the warden had written describing what they do.”
York County Spokesman Mark Walters declined to provide a copy of the prison’s policy.
Initially, he said the prison had intercepted contraband, including drugs, in the mail, but that releasing its methods for intercepting such contraband would “undermine the effectiveness of the interdiction efforts and would reasonably threaten public and staff safety.”
He didn’t say whether drugs had been intercepted in legal mail.
Walters later said that because the county is negotiating with the ACLU, it won’t comment further.
The prison’s website includes a description of a legal mail “option” that went into effect March 1. It says attorneys can send confidential mail via email, and the material will be opened and printed in view of inmates and then deleted from the server.
There is no elaboration on other options lawyers might have, or what policy or policies were in effect prior to March 1.
Correspondence between inmates and their lawyers is supposed to be confidential, per the First Amendment. It is one of the strongest protections incarcerated people have.
Federal law dictates that legal mail should be opened only in the presence of its intended recipient. But Walczak said he has confirmed that the prison is opening and copying letters away from inmates and allowing them to watch the process via remote camera.
“The courts ruled more than 20 years ago that such a practice is unconstitutional,” he said.
In the DOC case, the ACLU said its policy wasn’t secure enough, arguing it gave guards and other prison staff too many opportunities to peek at secure letters. The matter landed in federal court last month, and the state settled after a day of testimony.
The upshot was that the DOC agreed to completely stop photocopying legal mail. Their full settlement is expected to be made public soon.
Walczak said he and others at the ACLU are “cautiously optimistic” they will reach an agreement on the York policy.