Pa.’s Corrections department could be on the hook for legal fees over prisoner mail policy lawsuit

The Ronald Regan Federal Courthouse Building in Harrisburg. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The state Department of Corrections didn’t have to pay a settlement after a federal judge decided in March 2019 that it had violated prisoners’ rights by screening letters they received from lawyers. 

But the agency could still have to cough up almost $1.2 million in legal bills. 

That’s because the attorneys who brought the lawsuit have asked the Corrections department to cover their costs, which totaled $1.18 million, one of those lawyers, Angus Love of the Institutional Law Project, told the Capital-Star on Thursday.

Love and his fellow attorneys on the case didn’t seek a monetary settlement when they challenged Pennsylvania’s legal mail policy in federal court. They just wanted the policy overturned quickly. 

But they are entitled to compensation under a federal law that allows private attorneys to recoup the cost of their labor when they win a civil rights case. 

The $1.18 million figure represents all the billable hours that the attorneys spent preparing their lawsuit, which was settled out of court in February. Their hourly rates range from $300 to $600 per hour, depending on their experience and where they practice law, Love said. 

A Department of Corrections spokeswoman confirmed that the plaintiffs petitioned for a fee request and agreed to mediation after the agency filed a response. 

Love said they may try to cut a deal with the Department of Corrections, which operates Pennsylvania’s state prison system with a $2.1 billion total budget. But they may let a judge settle the case if they can’t reach a reasonable figure.

“We’re confident our position is sound,” Love told the Capital-Star last week.

The Department of Corrections announced the ill-fated mail security policy in 2018 after dozens of its employees said they felt ill following exposure to synthetic drugs in prison facilities.

The spate of incidents, which took place between May and August 2018, led to a nearly two-week lockdown of all state prison facilities as Corrections staff tried to root out contraband drugs. 

Agency officials adopted a slew of new security measures after the lockdown was lifted, including a policy that required prison staff to screen any mail that inmates received from lawyers.

That policy met a swift challenge from legal aid groups who said it violated client-attorney privileges enshrined in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. 

The Department of Corrections did not hire any private attorneys to defend the policy and did not maintain a record of how much the case cost, the agency’s press secretary Maria Finn said Thursday. 

Documents obtained through a Right to Know request show that the agency has paid out more than $7 million in taxpayer-funded settlements for federal lawsuits in 2019.

The largest settlement was a $5 million payout to Montague Walker, a Huntingdon County resident who was paralyzed after employees at the State Correctional Institution at Fayette, in southwestern Pennsylvania, failed to properly treat injuries he sustained in a fall from a bunk bed, according to federal court records.