The Curious Case of Legal Mail

                                                                                                      Christopher Zoukis
                                                                                                      Christopher Zoukis

By Christopher Zoukis / Huffington Post

Inmates in every jail and prison across America retain certain inalienable rights, even while behind bars. One such right is the First Amendment: the right to free speech. Now obviously there are some procedural modifications and limitations that occur within the correctional context, but it is a right nonetheless. It might not be immediately obvious to people, but the most important way many prisoners exercise that right is through their written correspondence. The First Amendment not only allows me, a prisoner, to write articles such as this, but also to safeguard my access to legal tools.

But unfortunately, there are a few bad institutional actors across the correctional landscape when it comes to protecting that right — a fact with which I’ve recently become well-acquainted.

Federally, the law is very clear on legal correspondence. In the Federal Bureau of Prisons, outgoing mail can be sealed and mailed via legal mail call every weekday morning. Correctional staff are not permitted to read these outgoing letters. Envelopes for inbound correspondence must include the attorney’s name, title, and a notice which reads: “Special Mail: Open only in the presence of the inmate.” Unlike personal mail, the only thing officials are allowed to do with legal mail is to open it in the inmate’s presence and briefly inspect the contents to ensure that it doesn’t contain contraband. They’re not allowed to read the actual correspondence. There are pretty rare exceptions to this, and time and time again Supreme Court rulings have upheld this right. Even if the envelope doesn’t have the precise wording, if it’s obviously of a privileged legal nature, then it should be treated accordingly.

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