“I have a lot more that I need to share with my husband right now,” says plaintiff in challenge of jail’s restriction of speech for inmates, their families and friends

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: February 20, 2013

CONTACT: ACLU of Florida Media Office, (786) 363 - 2737 media@aclufl.org

Florida Justice Institute: (305) 358 – 2081

JACKSONVILLE - Today, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Florida and the Florida Justice Institute (FJI) announced the filing of a federal class action lawsuit against the Sheriff of Flagler County challenging the constitutionality of the county jail’s policies restrictions on inmate mail.  Recently elected Sheriff Manfre has continued former Sheriff Fleming’s ban on incoming letters and requires all mail to inmates to be written on a postcard.

The ACLU and FJI represent Jennifer Underwood, a mother of two, whose husband Thomas Underwood is currently being held in the Flagler County Jail while he is awaiting trial.  The lawsuit asks the court to stop Jim Manfre from continuing the unconstitutional practice of limiting incoming mail between the Underwoods and those similarly situated to short, publicly-readable postcards.

“I miss my husband terribly and just want to be able to write him a letter about what is going on at home and with the kids without exposing our personal life in a postcard that can be read by anyone,” stated Jennifer Underwood. “A postcard has just enough space to say, ‘I miss you and I wish you were here.’  But the truth is that I have a lot more that I need to share with my husband right now than I can put on the tiny, approved postcard.”

“It’s hard to explain to my young sons why they can’t send their daddy a drawing,” she continued.  Jail rules prohibit children, like the Underwood’s sons, from visiting inmates so they cannot see their father.

The policy applies to all of those housed in the county jail, including both those who are serving a sentence as well as those awaiting trial and, therefore, legally presumed to be innocent.

“It should be common sense that a wife shouldn’t lose the ability to communicate with her husband, when he is held in jail, awaiting trial, and is presumed to be innocent,” stated Yvette Acosta MacMillan, staff attorney for the ACLU of Florida and counsel in the case. “The Flagler County Jail’s policy violates the rights of both prisoners and their correspondents. When people can’t share information freely, everyone suffers.”

Communication through mail is often the only feasible form of communication for inmates and their loved ones, as family members are often a far distance away, and the only available telephone calls—collect calls —are very costly. Additionally, in-person visits are limited to a short period once a week, so if a loved one is working during that period, they would be unable to communicate in person. Both telephone and in-person conversations are easily overheard by fellow inmates, guards and other visitors, leaving closed letter correspondence as the only confidential way to communicate with family and other loved ones.

“Simply because a family member is in jail doesn’t mean he ceases to be part of the family,” said Randall Berg, Executive Director, Florida Justice Institute.  “Yet, this postcard-only policy forces family members to write everything in abbreviated form, which can be read by anyone, or write nothing at all.  Inmates and their families and friends need to be able to discuss issues of health and finances and exchange words of encouragement in a complete and private way.  Postcards simply do not allow that.  Inmates’ family in these situations will be effectively silenced by the Sheriff’s policy, or risk airing personal or confidential information to others and potentially put themselves in harm’s way .”

Not only does a “postcard-only” policy infringe on Constitutional rights, it may be an obstacle to allowing former offenders to smoothly and successfully re-enter the community. Keeping close, personal ties with friends, family and community members outside the jail allows an inmate to remain connected to and invested in a community – reducing the likelihood of committing new crimes and returning to jail or prison.

The ACLU and FJI won a similar case in 2012, when they challenged a post-card only policy in the Santa Rosa County Jail. The Santa Rosa Sheriff abandoned the policy and paid $135,000 in attorneys’ fees and costs to the ACLU and FJI for their efforts in securing the judgment.

“The courts have established that simply because your loved one is in jail, the government can neither restrict your ability to speak with that person, nor restrict the way you receive information from them,” stated Benjamin Stevenson, Pensacola-based staff attorney for the ACLU of Florida who is also counsel in the Flagler County case as well as the previous case in Santa Rosa County. “Writing and sharing thoughts and artwork with loved ones is one of the most important things to help keep inmates connected to their loved ones and express their reflections while incarcerated. Incarcerated individuals and their loved ones shouldn’t be kept from corresponding about private topics like financial, medical, or relationship issues just because those messages will be in plain sight for all to see – or because there’s simply not enough room to write them out.”

The lawsuit was filed in the Jacksonville Division of the United States District Court, Middle District of Florida.

A copy of the complaint is available here: http://aclufl.org/pdfs/2013-02-UnderwoodManfrePostcardComplaint.pdf