The Morgan County Detention Center must notify mail senders if inmate mail is rejected and provide the sender an opportunity to contest the decision. That's what a U.S. District Judge decided Monday as the result of an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit filed against Morgan County.
Judge Nanette Laughrey issued the decision in favor of the ACLU. Oregon resident Tara Ballenger, along with the ACLU of Eastern Missouri filed the lawsuit in July claiming that inmates' rights were violated by the county's policy, which did not require that the jail notify mail senders if their mail was rejected.
The decision mandated the jail adopt a policy that provides senders written notification within five days if material they send to the jail is rejected by facility employees.
"We're going to follow what the judge says. It doesn't mean I personally agree, but we will follow the law," Morgan County Sheriff Jim Petty said. "I think it stretches the First Amendment that when someone mails something you have to notify them that it wasn't received, and that's what they were claiming."
It should be noted that a notice of the rejection and the opportunity to contest the decision was provided to the inmate, just not to the sender.
As a small department, it was decided to not fight the lawsuit. The judgment notes that the defendant denied any wrongdoing and denied that the plaintiff suffered any injury or deprivation of right.
Petty agreed to a policy written by the county's insurance attorney that was agreeable with the ACLU and the judge that provides for notification of confiscation of mail to the sender and the opportunity to appeal that decision.
He emphasized that prohibited materials that are confiscated are not thrown away but are put into the personal property file of the inmate and are given to them when they are released from the jail. The materials sent to the inmate by Ballenger were pornographic in nature according to Petty. He also noted that it is commonplace to confiscate improper materials and that as far as he is aware, no jail has a policy notifying the sender of confiscated material.
Citing 42 U.S.C. § 1983, the ACLU is sought a temporary injunction to require the jail to "provide notice and an opportunity to be heard to the sender" when a decision is made to reject mailed material.
Often called "section 1983," 42 U.S.C. § 1983 gives protection from "the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws" by persons working under the state.
Petty said he believes the law cited is not applicable to jails.
The sheriff's department will have minimal ongoing costs from mailing notifications when contraband or prohibited materials are intercepted and providing for the appeal procedure, Petty said.
Page 2 of 2 - The policy will go on the sheriff's website and will become effective within seven days of the department receiving notification of the judgment, which Petty expected to officially receive within the next day or two.
The county's insurance paid the ACLU's attorney fees of approximately $4,400.