Not quite the shorter sen­tences they sought

Soon Ven­tura County in­mates will be able to send and re­ceive only post­cards.

Los Angeles Times - - Late Extra - Steve Chawkins

Be­hind bars, you have to be strong, you have to be tough — and now, in Ven­tura County, you have to be brief.

Fol­low­ing a na­tional trend in jail mail, au­thor­i­ties are re­quir­ing that in­mates send and re­ceive only post­cards.

Over the years, con­tra­band of all kinds has made its way into the fa­cil­ity in “in­no­cent-look­ing letters,” jail of­fi­cials said. Ra­zor blades, drugs and coded mes­sages from gangs have been sneaked in be­tween the sheets.

“We have to take the stamps off en­velopes be­cause they’ll put drugs on the back that in­mates will then be able to lick,” said Cmdr. Brent Mor­ris, who runs one of the county’s two jails. “It gets very cum­ber­some.”

As of Oct. 4, letters other than those from lawyers will be marked “re­turn to sender.”

The same goes for post­cards with racist ref­er­ences, ob­scen­i­ties, nu­dity, gang sym­bols and, un­der the new rules, “any per­ceived bio­haz­ard (i.e. lip­stick, gloss, scents, etc.).”

Cash-strapped lo­cal of­fi­cials in at least seven states have in­sti­tuted sim­i­lar post-

card-only poli­cies, in part to cut down on the staff time re­quired to open sealed en­velopes. One of the first was Mari­copa County, Ariz., Sher­iff Joe Ar­paio, the self­styled “tough­est sher­iff in Amer­ica” who runs a fa­mously spar­tan jail in Phoenix.

An in­mate rep­re­sent­ing him­self sued Ar­paio over the re­stric­tions and lost. But Amer­i­can Civil Lib­er­ties Union law­suits filed over the last two months in Florida and Colorado have yet to reach court.

“There’s no ques­tion that this is a se­ri­ous abridge­ment of the 1st Amend­ment rights both of de­tainees and peo­ple on the out­side who want to cor­re­spond with them,” said David Fathi, the Washington, D.C.-based di­rec­tor of ACLU’s Na­tional Prison Project.

In a law­suit filed against of­fi­cials in Boul­der County, Colo., ACLU attorneys pointed to a num­ber of in­mates whose free­dom of ex­pres­sion would be “chilled” by the mail re­stric­tions.

There was a man who wanted to dis­cuss a sen­si­tive med­i­cal con­di­tion in a let­ter to his for­mer doc­tor, and an­other who didn’t want his chil­dren to see pri­vate mes­sages in­tended for his wife. Oth­ers didn’t want to draw at­ten­tion to their stints in the slam­mer.

That’s par­tic­u­larly tricky for Colorado Springs in­mates, who must use jail-is­sue post­cards that fea­ture a color photo of the jail.

“Most peo­ple in jail are pre­trial de­tainees who haven’t been con­victed of any­thing,” Fathi said. If they had been able to make bail, he said, they’d be at home — still charged with a crime but able to send all the letters they want.

In Boul­der County, the switch to post­cards was prompted by two sex of­fend­ers who were seek­ing pen­pal friend­ships with young girls.

But in Ven­tura County, no sin­gle in­ci­dent trig­gered the change.

Mor­ris said that jail of­fi­cials fol­lowed the emerg­ing pol­icy else­where through pro­fes­sional as­so­ci­a­tions. They saw it as a way of both cut­ting se­cu­rity risks and free­ing up staff. Two em­ploy­ees now spend most of their shifts sort­ing through mail flow­ing to and from 1,500 in­mates.

“When you bal­ance it with the chal­lenge of bud­get and staffing, it seemed like a pru­dent thing to in­sti­tute,” he said.

But for Los An­ge­les County, the trade­off isn’t worth it, said Steve Whit­more, a spokesman for the Sher­iff’s Depart­ment.

“We be­lieve the mail com­ing to in­mates is as im­por­tant as their phone calls,” he said.

“If we were to limit the mail, we be­lieve we would see a rise in mental chal­lenges, maybe even vi­o­lence.” steve.chawkins@latimes.com Times staff writer Robert Fa­turechi con­trib­uted to this re­port.

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