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On The Front Lines

Rutherford Institute Challenges Arkansas Jail’s Postcard-Only Rule as Unconstitutional Infringement of Prisoners’ First Amendment Rights

ST. LOUIS, Mo. —The Rutherford Institute has asked a federal appeals court to strike down an Arkansas county jail’s postcard-only policy that limits the mail prisoners can send and receive to postcards, arguing that the restriction violates the First Amendment.

In an amicus brief in HRDC v. Baxter County filed in conjunction with R Street Institute, the Clark-Fox Family Foundation, Arch City Defenders and Americans for Prosperity, The Rutherford Institute pointed to historic examples of prisoner communications—such as St. Paul’s epistles written from prison, the letters of Martin Luther King, Jr.,  and German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer—as examples of the kinds of writings that could be inhibited or prevented by the postcard-only rule.

Affiliate attorneys Mark Sableman, Michael L. Nepple, and Anthony F. Blum of Thompson Coburn assisted in advancing the arguments in the Human Rights Defense Center brief.

“Prisoners in Birmingham, Alabama, during the height of the civil rights movement, Nazi Germany, and the Roman Empire all had greater freedom in prisoner communications than prisoners in Arkansas are afforded,” said constitutional attorney John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute and author of Battlefield America: The War on the American People. “Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail is perhaps the most famous prison letter of modern times. But that letter would not have been allowed had these postcard-only policies been in effect. Indeed, if King had been limited to postcards, at the typical postcard length of about 100 words, his treatise on the need for racial justice in America would have filled 70 postcards and taken nearly five months to mail out under the current Arkansas jail policy. Likewise, under this policy, Dietrich Bonhoeffer—imprisoned for challenging the Nazi regime—would never have been able to share his thoughts about faith, courage and tyranny, which were preserved in his letters to family and friends.”

Baxter County, located in north-central Arkansas, operates a jail housing about 100 persons who have been arrested and are awaiting trial. In December 2011, jail authorities announced a new policy that persons held in the jail would only be allowed to send and receive postcards—4-inch by 6-inch cards—for mailing messages without an envelope. Indigent inmates are limited to three postcards per week. Authorities asserted this policy was intended to limit contraband coming into the jail and to save costs.

As a result of the policy, The Human Rights Defense Center (HRDC), a non-profit organization that advocates on behalf of the rights of person held in jails, prisons and detentions centers throughout the U.S., was no longer able to send prisoners its monthly Prison Legal News magazine covering prison-related news, as well as other self-help and educational books requested and purchased by prisoners. In addition, prisoners could no longer send letters to family and friends. The messages they could send and receive were limited to what could fit on a postcard. HRDC sued the County, arguing that the policy violated the First Amendment. Although the trial court acknowledged that HRDC and the prisoners have a First Amendment right to send and receive information, it ruled that the jail’s interest in preventing contraband from entering the jail and in limiting the costs incurred in reviewing incoming mail outweighed the First Amendment rights of HRDC and the prisoners. HRDC appealed the decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit.

In its amicus brief, The Rutherford Institute and its coalition partners argue that the postcard-only policy goes far beyond what is needed or reasonable to address legitimate penological needs and significantly impairs essential human rights of communication and learning. 

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