From now on, the only sealed envelopes coming out of the El Paso County Criminal Justice Center will be addressed to lawyers.
Inmates wanting to write family and friends will use postcards issued by the jail, and marked with the sheriff's star. Sheriff Terry Maketa says the new policy will save money and headaches, while increasing security at the facility.
But the policy has dismayed the American Civil Liberties Union — and at least one inmate's mom.
"I don't want these people to know my son's in jail," says the mother, who asked not to be identified for fear her son would face repercussions. "Everybody [in my apartment building] stands around the mailbox. ... It's going to be a postcard. I'm going to be very embarrassed."
The woman has larger concerns as well. How will she discuss private details of her son's case with him? Should she tell her son about a medical diagnosis she recently received, knowing he might write back about the private matter on a postcard any stranger can read? How would she pay for enough postcards to have meaningful communication with him, considering that she's living on disability checks?
To Mark Silverstein, legal director of the ACLU of Colorado, all of this sounds like a violation of freedom of speech.
"The restrictions on prisoners' ability to correspond with a person in the free world can violate not only the First Amendment rights of the prisoners, but the First Amendment rights of the free-world responders," he says.
Silverstein has not said whether the ACLU will sue the sheriff's office, but he is encouraging inmates and their loved ones to call the ACLU and share their stories.
Maketa isn't worried. He says El Paso County is not the first to put the policy in place. In March, the Boulder County Jail instituted the same policy after two convicted sex offenders in the jail sent letters to children.
"The provision that we have to provide means of communication does not define the fact that they have a right to privacy ... or that we have to allow for sealed letters," Maketa says. "When inmates are placed in the custody of a correctional or detention facility, the individuals lose their right to privacy with the exception of legal mail."
Maketa gives a number of reasons for the new policy:
• The jail employs one full-time and one part-time employee to handle the tens of thousands of letters sent annually (so far in 2010, there's been an average of 1,386 inmates held daily) and was on the verge of needing another staffer to handle the volume. This was partly because employees lose time personally handling overstuffed letters that don't fit through the postage machine.
• Going to a postcard system will save the jail $5,000 a year in supply costs alone, and ease the burden on staffers.
• The new system is more secure. While the jail is allowed to screen all mail except legal communications, it only has the staff to thoroughly screen incoming mail, Maketa says. Consequently, inmates have used mail inappropriately — threatening witnesses or even communicating with other inmates. Postcards are easier to screen.
The new policy went into effect July 22. Postcards are 50 cents each, including postage. Indigent inmates are provided two free postcards every two weeks, Maketa says.