Court: Prisoner mail policy is proper

Prisoner mail policy helps reduce the risk of contraband entering the jail and cuts staff time required to check incoming mail


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Simpson v. County of Cape Girardeau, 879 F.3d 273 (8th Cir. 2018)

Trey Simpson was a prisoner at the county jail and each week, his mother wrote him several lengthy letters, including pictures and drawings.

While Simpson was incarcerated, the county changed the prisoner mail policy, limiting incoming mail to standard white postcards, no larger than 5″ X 7″. There was no limit on the number of incoming postcards, but, according to the prisoner mail policy, each prisoner was limited to 10 postcards in the cell at any one time.

In this Feb. 5, 2016, photo, mail clerks at the Wynne Unit of the Texas prison system inspect boxes of letters for inmates in Huntsville, Texas. (AP Photo/Pat Sullivan)
In this Feb. 5, 2016, photo, mail clerks at the Wynne Unit of the Texas prison system inspect boxes of letters for inmates in Huntsville, Texas. (AP Photo/Pat Sullivan)

Simpson’s mother continued to prolifically write to her son, sending several postcards each week and numbering them for continuity. She complained that the cards arrived at different times, confusing the message, and that postal workers and jailers could read what she wrote.

The ACLU sued the county jail on Mrs. Simpson’s behalf. The county asserted that the prisoner mail policy helped reduce the risk of contraband entering the jail and cut the staff time required to check incoming mail.

In Turner v. Safley (482 U.S. 78 (1987)), the Supreme Court held that a prison regulation “is valid if it is reasonably related to legitimate penological interests.”

The Court laid out several factors to help determine whether a particular rule met that threshold:

  • First, is there is a valid rational connection between the rule and the underlying government interest?
  • Second, is there an alternative means available to the prisoners to exercise the right?
  • Third, would an accommodation have a significant “ripple effect” on staff, other inmates and prison resources?
  • Fourth, is there an alternative that fully accommodates the prisoner that imposes only a de minimis cost to the institution’s valid penological interests?

The appellate court held that “there is a common-sense connection between the goal of reducing contraband in the jail and [the] postcard-only incoming mail policy.” The court held that Simpson’s mother had several alternatives to fulfill her right to communicate with her son, including sending him as many postcards as she would like. Moreover, she could receive collect calls from him and she could visit him on visiting days.

The court also resolved the question of a significant “ripple effect” in favor of the jail because returning to a letter policy could increase the risk of contraband smuggling.

Finally, the court observed that “there is a common-sense connection between restricting letter mail and limiting the amount of contraband that enters a jail.” Mrs. Simpson should stock up on postcards because the prisoner mail policy is deemed constitutional.

Next: Inspecting mail for contraband.

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