Legal mail policy at Pennsylvania prisons will be revised under settlement

(Patrick Feller/Flickr)

A controversial policy on copying and storing legal mail at Pennsylvania prisons will be revised under a nearly finished settlement between groups that advocate for incarcerated persons and the state Corrections department.

In a Friday press release, the Department of Corrections said it will implement a new policy by April 6 that allows incarcerated persons to keep original copies of correspondence from attorneys or courts. At the moment, prison workers open legal mail in front of prisoners, make a copy, then store the original in a “secured receptacle” for 45 days.

Litigation to stop the policy was brought by an incarcerated person, Davon R. Hayes, as well as the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, Abolitionist Law Center, Amistad Law Project, and the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project. Attorneys who work with prisoners testified in federal court Tuesday that they no longer felt comfortable sending mail to their clients because of privacy concerns.

“We appreciate that the department has agreed that, beginning April 6, they will stop copying and storing prisoners’ legal mail,” the groups said in a statement. “The revised screening procedures will respect the rights of prisoners to confidential and privileged attorney-client communications without compromising the department’s efforts to prohibit drug use in the prisons.”

Pennsylvania’s Corrections department implemented sweeping changes in September 2018 after locking down the entire system. Officials claimed the changes were needed to curb the flow of illicit substances into its facilities. The department published December statistics showing a decrease in “inmate drug finds” between August — when the lockdown began — and the end of 2018.

“The DOC respects the right of attorney-client privilege and recognizes the importance of attorney-client relationships,” Corrections Secretary John Wetzel said in a Friday statement. “At the same time the DOC has a responsibility to ensure that prisons are safe for those who work and live in them. We feel the plan agreed to by the parties meets both of those objectives.”

Associate Editor Sarah Anne Hughes covers the governor and Pennsylvania's agencies. Before joining the Capital-Star, she was the state capitol reporter for Billy Penn and The Incline, and a 2018 corps member for Report for America. She was previously managing editor of Washington City Paper, editor-in-chief of DCist, and a national blogger for The Washington Post.

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