Hillsborough jails to limit incoming inmate mail to postcards

Starting Sept. 1 the Hillsborough County jail system will limit incoming inmate mail to postcards.
Published August 17 2013
Updated August 18 2013

For jail inmates, letters are links to the outside. Their precious pages contain kids' drawings, medical updates, confessions of love. • They are birthday cards and Christmas cards, reminders that another life exists. • In Hillsborough County next month, they will be no more. • Starting Sept. 1, the county's inmates will be able to receive only postcards. Letters, unless sent from an inmate's attorney, will be returned to sender.

Inmates can still write letters to people outside jail. And outsiders can either tighten their prose or send multiple postcards, the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office says.

Inmate Marcus Harris scoffed when he heard the news. "A postcard is for people on vacation."

"We're peaceful detainees. We're charged with a crime — we're not convicted," said Harris, who was booked last year on robbery charges and is now fighting the change. "To write people like that is very important."

• • •

Sheriff's officials say it is a matter of security.

Though most letter-writers follow the rules, jail officials catch contraband items daily, said Hillsborough sheriff's Capt. Anne Herman, who manages inmate support.

Jail employees find lewd photos, drugs hidden under stamps and even bodily fluids.

Is that hate mail?

"Romantic mail," Herman replied.

They also sometimes find letters written in code and with gang references. White powder can shut down the mail room while hazardous materials workers investigate. This year, that has happened three times.

Every day, Monday through Friday, three civilian employees sort incoming mail, usually between 400 and 600 letters a day, plus packages.

On Thursday, the blue-gloved women methodically sliced open letters and flipped through their pages:

A stack of papers with bubble-letter font addressed to Tyree (with a heart). A kid's crayon drawing of a mom, a dad and two children. "We love you," it read. A black-and-white sonogram photo.

A photo of a man in what appeared to be a strip club, surrounded by thonged women.

"Returned," officer Jerlyn Spicer said, moving the illicit photo to the side. Sexual photos can be coveted by other inmates, prompting thefts and fights.

Next to Spicer, another employee carefully cut off every stamp from every envelope — just in case drugs were hidden under the sticky squares.

But the most common contraband is seemingly harmless items that the jail simply does not allow, such as cash, stamps and snacks. Each time a prohibited item comes in, a jail employee must fill out a form that will be sent to the inmate, informing him or her of what was intercepted and why it was not delivered. The items are then returned to the sender.

It is time-consuming, Herman said, but jail officials do it so that no one can accuse them of stealing inmates' items or acting prejudicially.

With postcards, she said, that will no longer be an issue.

• • •

Several weeks ago, jail officials posted the new rules in the jail's common areas and on the sheriff's website. They expected some grumbling, though Harris' quickly filed civil rights complaint was a bit of a surprise.

He is arguing that the new rule limits the inmates' First Amendment rights. He also is fighting new restrictions on books.

Currently, inmates can receive books mailed directly from retailers, such as Amazon. But about four months ago, Hillsborough officials started noticing that some senders were setting up their own Amazon seller accounts.

When inmates' friends and family members mail the books themselves, it is more likely that illicit items have been slipped into the pages. Starting Sept. 1, books can no longer be mailed — even from a retailer — unless they are legal materials. Newspapers are still allowed.

"We've got thousands of books," Herman said. "And we're always getting new ones and constantly rotating them between pods." Inmates can request specific genres and titles, and if the jail has them, deputies will deliver them, she said.

Hillsborough is far from the first county to move to a postcard-only policy.

Manatee and Pasco counties made the move years ago. The policy is common in the western United States, and at least 11 Florida counties already do it, including Hernando.

The Pinellas County Sheriff's Office still allows letters and is not considering a change. And letters can still be mailed to federal and Florida state prisons, where inmate stays are usually longer than in county jails.

Hillsborough was mainly waiting to see how other lawsuits and complaints shook out in court. So far, the policy has been largely successful. Lawsuits filed in Manatee and Pasco counties both fizzled.

In 2010, a federal judge in Tampa upheld Manatee's postcard rule and pointed to precedent that "lawful incarceration brings about the necessary withdrawal or limitation of many privileges and rights."

Inmates still have constitutional rights, the judge's order stated, but those rights must be weighed against the need for order and security. Tampa lawyer Katherine Yanes, who represented the Manatee inmates, argued that the postcard policy leans too far toward security.

"I think it really hurts inmates' ability to keep in touch with the people who care about them, which is already pretty circumscribed," she said. "There aren't any in-person visits anymore. And the phone system is not great."

Private medical information and news of a loved one's death will not be information people will feel comfortable sharing on postcards, she said.

Hillsborough Sheriff's Office attorney Thea Clark said the legal department thoroughly researched the issue and feels comfortable that the policy is constitutional.

"We wouldn't authorize a policy that I thought was violating anybody's rights," she said.

It may be a novel policy for Hillsborough, she added, but it is not a novel issue.

"We don't allow inmates to do a lot of things that they would be able to do out in the community," Clark said.

Such as smoking. Years ago, when the Sheriff's Office banned cigarettes in the jail, inmates grumbled and talked about the violation of their rights. No one complains now, jail Capt. Herman said. She thinks the same will eventually go for postcards.

Col. Kenneth Davis, who is in charge of Hillsborough's jails, said he has a solution for anyone who doesn't like the change:

"You don't have to come here," he said. "You can stay out of jail."

In Pasco, 71-year-old bookseller Dan Callaghan filed a lawsuit in 2009 fighting the Sheriff's Office's postcard rule.

He was briefly jailed in 2004 for disrupting the Chasco Fiesta parade, and several years later found it difficult to mail inmates. It took him 68 postcards one time, he said, to convey what he normally did in a letter.

"It was very frustrating," he recalled last week.

He represented himself in his lawsuit and did not get far. Now, he is disheartened to see other counties following suit.

Callaghan believes the postcard policy is less about security and more about simply saving sheriff's offices time and money — at the expense of inmates' welfare.

"Talk to any psychologist and you'll find that letters from friends and family are very, very important to inmates," he said. "And a postcard just does not cut it."

Times staff writer Patty Ryan contributed to this report. Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3433.