State Department of Corrections Agrees to Change Mail Policy

DU’s Civil Rights Clinic negotiated changes after raising constitutional concerns

The Colorado Department of Corrections has changed its policy around inmates’ ability to receive mail following a joint resolution between the CDOC and the University of Denver’s Civil Rights Clinic.

The resolution went into effect May 1 and comes after a few months of negotiations between the Civil Rights Clinic and the CDOC. Students in the clinic raised First and 14th Amendment concerns on behalf of Tiffany McCoy, an inmate, about a CDOC policy that prohibited inmates from receiving original copies of greeting cards, postcards and items containing drawings. The department had put the policy in place to try to prevent the smuggle of drugs into its facilities through mail. 

But according to a letter sent in January by the clinic to the CDOC executive director Dean Williams, the policy violated inmates’ First Amendment right to free speech by restricting their rights to correspond and associate with others. It also violated their due process rights, said the letter, by not giving inmates sufficient notice or opportunity to challenge instances when their mail has been rejected under the ban. 

The letter also touched on more intangible value of the personal connection to loved ones the original mail provides. It argued the card ban runs contrary to the CDOC’s stated goal of strengthening prisoners’ ties to their support systems.

Alexandra Parrott, who worked on the resolution as a third-year law student in the Civil Rights Clinic, said the CDOC’s policy came onto the clinic’s radar when it went into effect early last year, and the department created the policy based on those in other states. She said, through open records requests, the students working on the project discovered incidents of drugs getting into correctional facilities through mail is rare. In 2017, Parrott said, the CDOC had only 62 incident reports for contraband smuggled in through mail, compared with more than 17,000 inmates in the state’s correctional system. 

“It wasn’t really affecting this issue,” Parrott said. “Unfortunately, it was just affecting the relationships that these prisoners relied on with their families and their loved ones.”

Under the resolution, the CDOC agreed to do away with its blanket prohibition on inmates receiving original greeting cards, postcards and items with drawings. But the department does still have the ability to temporarily ban inmates from receiving original copies of those types of mail if they’re found to using mail to bring drugs into the system. In an addendum, the Civil Rights Clinic agreed not to represent anyone in litigation against the CDOC should they suffer any drug-related harm as a result of the change in the mail policy.

Williams said he considered that addendum a big concession by the Civil Rights Clinic, because the department and the clinic understood that changing the mail policy could have carried the possibility of opening the CDOC up to litigation. 

“The gain was that prisoners got their original pieces of mail from their loved ones, which is a big deal,” Williams said.

Pennsylvania’s Department of Corrections has also received scrutiny for its policies around mail inmates receive. Earlier this year, department attorneys agreed in a lawsuit settlement to stop photocopying and storing legal mail. But according to reporting from WITF, Corrections Secretary John Wetzel said in February the department did not plan to change a related policy for regular mail, which allows inmates to have a photocopy. Pennsylvania implemented that policy because of a rise in drug smuggling via mail in 2018.

Parrott said the Civil Rights Clinic would have been ready to file a lawsuit against the CDOC if they felt it was necessary. But litigation drags on, and Parrott also said the clinic also had hope that when Williams took over as the CDOC’s executive director, the clinic would have the chance to build a relationship with him and reach the core of the mail policy issue through negotiations.

Williams took over as the CDOC’s executive director in January, so he inherited the policy. He said he recognized the blanket ban on certain kinds of mail probably would have been a difficult policy for the CDOC to defend in litigation. 

“When you’re baiting those kinds of questions, I’d rather be on very, very solid ground and know that I’m going to prevail,” he said. “And on this particular issue, it was very debatable.” Williams added the Civil Rights Clinic had presented him with a lot of research to support their legal arguments, and he found their preparation compelling.

He said he understands sometimes litigation is inevitable, but he believes the Civil Rights Clinic understood he intended to make a good-faith effort to find a resolution for the CDOC’s mail policy. “I believe there’s often middle ground that at least should be explored before people get to that place.” Williams added that because a lawsuit sets the tone for a relationship between two parties, he was conscious of wanting to start his tenure as the CDOC’s executive director with a tone of using constructive approaches to making changes in the department.

Parrott said it’s been satisfying to help inmates have their voices heard. “The biggest thing for us was seeing the change that Ms. McCoy was able to make for all the prisoners in the DOC, and being able to really amplify the voices of prisoners in their environment and the policies that affect them directly.” 

—Julia Cardi

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