Trial Kicks Off In Case Contesting PA’s Prison Mail Policy

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HARRISBURG, PA (WSKG) — Hearings have begun in a federal case over whether Pennsylvania’s prison system is violating inmates’ First Amendment Rights.

Legal mail is at the center of the debate.

In this Oct. 4, 2018, Pennsylvania Corrections Department mail inspector Brian Strawser sorts inmate mail at Camp Hill state prison in Camp Hill, Pa. Pennsylvania prison officials say new mail handling procedures and other changes appear to have helped address a spate of incidents this year in which correctional officers and other staff have sought medical treatment believed to be caused by exposure to synthetic marijuana that was smuggled into state prisons. (AP Photo/Mark Scolforo)

The prison system changed its policy concerning privileged communications between inmates and their attorneys in October of 2018.

It was one of many security-tightening measures the Department of Corrections took in response to what they say is an increasing problem with synthetic drugs getting into prisons.

Instead of directly giving inmates letters from their lawyers, the letters are now photocopied in front of the recipients, and the prison temporarily retains the original.

The case is being brought by the ACLU and a few other inmate-advocacy groups. In the first few hours of trial, they’ve called two attorneys and an inmate as witnesses.

The attorneys both say they’ve completely stopped sending legal mail to prisons. In some cases, that has delayed trials and led to logistical nightmares in setting up in-person visits.

The first attorney was ACLU Deputy Legal Director Mary Katherine Roper. She testified that she feels there is no guarantee prison staff won’t read confidential mail—though she does note, the DOC policy technically prohibits it in most cases.

The second attorney, Leane Renee, is the Assistant Federal Public Defender in the Middle District of PA’s Capital Habeas Unit. She represents death row inmates, and said the DOC’s new policy doesn’t meet her office’s ethical standards.

She said she has about 15 clients in Pennsylvania, and that not being able to send them confidential mail has been “stifling.”

The inmate who testified is Davon Hayes, who is currently housed in SCI Smithfield. He’s been involved in a lot of litigation since his incarceration in 2005—much related to his treatment in prison.

He said he thinks prison staffers can read his legal mail now, and is on board with his lawyers’ decision to no longer send it.

The state’s defense has not yet called its own witnesses.