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Free Speech Concerns, Glitches Delay N.H. Prison Mail Policy

Concord — A policy that would limit mail for high-security prisoners in New Hampshire will not take effect at the beginning of next year, as planned, due to logistical and constitutional concerns raised in recent days.

The policy, which the Department of Corrections unveiled last month as part of an effort to curb contraband in its facilities, would allow maximum and close custody inmates to receive personal mail only if it’s in the form of a postcard.

The rule would not affect sanctioned legal correspondence with the inmates or mail sent to lower security inmates. It had been scheduled for implementation Jan. 1.

Spokesman Jeff Lyons said yesterday the department will wait to enforce the policy because of unforeseen logistical kinks and First Amendment concerns raised by the New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union. It’s uncertain when the policy will now take effect.

Lyons said the department had not considered that inmates will still need to receive certain items that cannot be attached to postcards, including checks, money orders and visitor applications, which are printed on 8-by-11-inch sheets of paper.

“We probably should have looked at it more closely,” Lyons said.

The department will also meet with representatives from the civil liberties union next month to hear their concerns, which hinge on inmates’ and their correspondents’ right to freedom of speech.

Gilles Bissonnette, the group’s staff attorney, said the restriction would cut some inmates off from an array of meaningful content — things such as photographs, a child’s report card, spiritual or religious texts and doctor’s reports — creating a “hurdle to personal and constructive written communication.”

“For many inmates” Bissonnette said, “letters – substantive letters – are really their only meaningful form of communication with the outside world.”

Maintaining those channels often helps inmates prepare for life after incarceration, he added.

Mailed contraband, particularly concealable drugs, has become a problem for prison officials. But while Bissonnette recognized that concern, he questioned why the department couldn’t take further safety steps aside from further restricting mail.

Under the new policy, for example, he said, inmates in the general population would receive traditional mail, but envelopes will be discarded before content is delivered to them. Why wouldn’t the same method of monitoring suffice for higher-security inmates?

New Hampshire is not the first state to adopt a “postcard” restriction and to have freedom of speech questions raised over the new rule.

This spring, a federal court judge struck down a similar policy in Oregon after the Vermont-based Human Rights Defense Center complained that it violated the rights of inmates and their letter-writers. The context in that may be slightly different from in New Hampshire’s: Law enforcement officials there have been quoted as saying the policy was not instituted because of any knwn contraband problem.

Regardless, Bissonnette said he was open to hearing the department’s concerns

“But I think today when balancing the First Amendment interests with the security interests,” he said, “the First Amendment interests seem especially compelling.”