Jail mail policy draws protests

October 1

Victor Espinosa kneeled down outside the Ventura County Government Center on Friday, putting the finishing touches on a poster that read “Dignity & Humanity 4 All Inmates.”

The Santa Paula man was one of 11 people protesting a new mail policy for inmates that limits correspondence to postcards in Ventura County jails. Letters in envelopes regarding legal matters sent between inmates and attorneys will still be allowed, as will books, magazines and newspapers, when the new rules take effect Monday.

“This attempt to take away mail is another attempt to take away communication with our brothers and sisters behind the wall and those of us on the outside,” Espinosa said while standing at Victoria Avenue and Telephone Road in Ventura, holding the completed sign above his head. “I think every human being deserves dignity. That’s what makes us human.”

The protestors said the policy change would affect their ability to communicate with inmates and infringe on inmates’ freedom of speech. Several in the group insisted that some inmates were on a hunger strike over the new policy, an assertion Sheriff’s Department officials refuted.

Motorists honked as Oxnard resident Lucy Cartagena Rodriguez stood with other protestors at the busy intersection. Cartagena Rodriguez organized the protest and plans to address the issue at the Ventura County Board of Supervisors’ meeting Tuesday.

“We’re America; we fought for freedom of speech,” Cartagena Rodriguez said. “That’s why people are responding.”

Sheriff’s Department officials who operate county jails say the change is necessary to increase security and safety as well as efficiency. Contraband, such as drugs, have been found in the pages of letters coming into the jail. Envelopes are opened and the contents are screened before mail is distributed to inmates.

“We have a legitimate governmental interest of not only keeping contraband out of the jails that affects the safety and security in the jail, but also to make sure the mail is delivered in a timely fashion,” Cmdr. Brent Morris said Thursday.

The postcard policy has been implemented in several county jail systems in different states. In Colorado and Florida, the American Civil Liberties Union has taken legal action challenging the policy on freedom of speech grounds.

The American Jail Association does not know how many jails have implemented the policy, but it’s aware that some facilities are rethinking it because of the ACLU’s involvement on behalf of inmates, an association spokesman said.

Nevin Arron of Port Hueneme said she writes to her son in the main jail every day, sending letters up to 10 pages long and filled with Bible verses to inspire the man she described as mentally ill. In return, her son writes back every day, sometimes stuffing letters into an envelope decorated with crayon hearts.

“Just because they have gang members in there doing contraband and code, why not punish them and not everyone else?” Arron said.

Morris said Friday that he thinks people will find the change is not as dramatic as they think.

“I really don’t think this is going to infringe on anybody’s rights,” he said.

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