Is Scanning Inmates' Mail To Stop the Spread Of Drugs Legal?

By Lindsey Weedston 02/22/19

The ACLU is challenging a Philadelphia prison mail policy that they allege violates attorney-client privilege and inmates right to privacy.

correctional officer who just finished scanning an inmates' mail for drugs

A trial is underway in Pennsylvania to decide whether a new prison policy involving the opening and scanning of inmates' mail to prevent drug smuggling is legal. State prisons began the new mail procedure in 2018 after a number of inmates and staff were hospitalized from synthetic cannabinoid exposure.

Dangerous drugs like K2 were being smuggled into prisons after being mixed with ink or used to coat letter paper. The substances are colorless and odorless, making them difficult or impossible to detect through normal means.

According to officials, more than 50 prison staff members and 33 inmates were hospitalized over a period of three months in western and central Pennsylvania. Since the implementation of the new mail policy, the amount of synthetic cannabinoids entering the prisons has plummeted.

However, the legality of the policy was challenged in October by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), and arguments are now being heard by a judge. 

The policy requires staff members to remove letters from friends, family, and legal counsel from envelopes, scan them, and pass along the copies to inmates. The originals are kept in a box for 45 days, at which point they can be destroyed.

Lawyers are alleging that this procedure violates attorney-client privilege and inmate right to privacy. They argue that there is no way to prevent staff from reading letters containing legal strategy and other sensitive information, intentionally or not. 

"The practices they've implemented are tremendously disruptive, and in fact are prohibiting a lot of lawyers from being able to use the mail to communicate with their clients," said Pennsylvania ACLU legal director Vic Walczak.

Many lawyers have therefore stopped sending their imprisoned clients anything in the mail and are having difficulty finding alternative methods to communicate privately with inmates.

According to Leane Renee, assistant federal public defender for the U.S. Middle District Court, inmates are only allowed 15 minutes at a time on the phone and lawyers are not always allowed to bring documents into face-to-face meetings.

Even if they are, legal teams are often located hours away from the prisons where their clients are held. This has reportedly caused a backlog in legal phone call requests that prisons can’t accommodate.

At the same time, although the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections has claimed that all documents are stored and disposed of properly in order to prevent privacy violations, there have been reports of “legal documents piled on desks or heaped into trash bags,” according to Philadelphia's The Inquirer

"We've gotten reports from dozens of lawyers who are involved in criminal appeals and civil issues, who can't communicate with their clients, and these individuals' cases are being harmed and delayed," said Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project lawyer Alexandra Morgan-Kurtz.

There have also been allegations of missing pages from legal packets and staff failing to use protective equipment while handling mail possibly contaminated with synthetic cannabinoids.

The ACLU is not challenging the use of this new mail procedure when it comes to mail from friends, family, or anyone other than legal counsel.

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Lindsey Weedston is a Seattle area writer focused on mental health and addiction, politics, human rights, and various social issues. Her work has appeared in The Establishment, Ravishly, ThinkProgress, Little Things, Yes! Magazine, and others. You can find her daily writings at Twitter: