“Postcard only” rules at county jails in Michigan attracting protests, lawsuits

Aug 22, 2011

Mail policies at several county jails across the state are becoming more restrictive, mainly to save money. It’s causing an outcry from inmates’ family and friends, and people who advocate for prisoners’ rights.

I called all 83 of Michigan’s sheriffs. 16 of them send their inmates to a county jail that has instituted “postcard only” rules . Under such rules, inmates can only send and receive standard white postcards. There is no limit on the number of postcards. Legal mail is exempt. The postcard only rules can vary from county to county. Some allow photos, others allow magazine subscriptions or books, and others don’t.

In Muskegon County dozens of people have repeatedly protested at county meetings, begging the board of commissioners and the sheriff to change the policy back. The group “Letters R Better” says the postcards stifle free speech.

In Livingston County, Sheriff Bob Bezotte faces a federal lawsuit because of the policy.

“We’re not, in my opinion, we’re not intentionally trying to violate anybody’s rights. We’re just trying to conduct business in a better way that’s all.”

Bezotte says he was forced to institute budget cuts to save the county money. He says there are 27 fewer employees in the sheriff’s department since 2005. He says they just don’t have the manpower anymore to sort through letters to check for contraband.

Vermont-based Prison Legal News filed the federal lawsuit filed against Livingston County and Bezotte PLN Editor Paul Wright says the postcard policies violate his organization’s free press rights.

“We’re very assertive about our first amendment rights to communicate with people in prisons and jails because that’s our target audience,” Wright said, “If we don’t assert our rights ultimately we’ll be left with no readership that can get our monthly magazine or our books.”

PLN just settled a similar lawsuit earlier this month in Spokane County, Washington. The Spokesman-Review reports the sheriff reversed the postcard only policy there – but was frustrated the county settled the case. The paper reports:

The settlement allows a judge to restore the postcard requirement for incoming personal mail if the U.S. Supreme Court or federal appellate courts find similar policies are permissible.

Bezotte says PLN is “obviously” trying to solicit lawsuits.

“We think it’s a frivolous lawsuit but we’ll see how it plays out.”

PLN is asking a federal judge in Detroit to order Bezotte reverse the policy and award PLN monetary damages.

PLN also sued Michigan's Department of Corrections in 1999. That case was over whether the state could keep a book published by the organization out of state prisons. The book, "Celling of America", was allowed.