A number of groups that provide legal assistance to inmates in Pennsylvania's state prisons have stopped mail correspondence with their clients.
They say they think the Department of Corrections' new protocols regarding legal mail could violate attorney-client privilege; if the policy isn't changed, they may sue.
In a letter to the department, the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, the Abolitionist Law Center, and the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project argued that the new mail policy--aimed to keep drugs out of prisons--violates inmates' rights.
Under the old rules, legal mail was given to incarcerated people directly.
Now it's photocopied, the inmate gets the copy, and the prison retains the original for 15 days.
Vic Walczak, legal director of the state ACLU chapter, said that leaves too much space for interference in sensitive legal matters.
"We represent prisoners who are suing the guards," he noted. "They may be suing them over any number of civil rights violations...and the person they are suing could potentially be the person who is opening the mail."
Walczak said the ACLU, other groups, and many public defenders officially decided to stop sending mail after extended consultations with legal experts.
The policy change on legal correspondence is one of many the DOC implemented suddenly this month after a spike in prison guards and other staff reporting illnesses, which were thought to be related to powerful contraband drugs.
It's not the only new measure garnering opposition from inmates' rights groups. But it is, Walczak said, "the most urgent problem, because it is actually interfering with a lot of ongoing court matters."
He said the ACLU and other groups "don't doubt there are drugs coming in."
But when the organization asked what percentage of drugs makes it into prisons via legal mail, Walczak reports that the DOC only pointed to two instances. In both, the label that identifies a package as legal mail had been "compromised" and likely was misused by non-attorneys.
The letter writers also said there isn't much precedent for what the DOC is doing.
"Our inability to identify another state prison system in the country that employs a similar screening process that copies the prisoners' mail and stores the original letter and documents strongly suggests the practice is an unnecessary, exaggerated and indefensible security precaution," they concluded.
Angus Love, who heads the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project, said stopping legal mail won't have ramifications for ongoing cases immediately. But if a solution isn't found soon, there could be problems.
He estimates his organization gets around 15,000 requests for service from inmates every year. He said they currently have a "couple dozen" lawsuits pending, and one is a class action suit on behalf of 6,000 people.
In their letter, the groups requested a response from the DOC before this weekend. They're also preparing a federal lawsuit.
Asked to comment, a department spokeswoman said only that they are reviewing the letter.
In the meantime, Walczak said attorneys will have to travel to visit their clients in person.
But it's tough.
"We simply don't have the resources to drive down to Greene or SCI Phoenix every time we need to talk to our clients," he said. "It's a real problem."