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Can Prison Officials Screen Legal Mail?

If you are in prison, you probably have a good reason to contact an attorney. Often, the only way for prison inmates to communicate is through letters with their lawyer. But prison officials can read your mail if you are in prison…or can they?

While prison officials are legally allowed to screen your mail to ensure that no contraband or dangerous items are being sent to inmates, California law does not permit anyone to read your legal mail. This law was recently called into question in nearby Arizona.

Court Rules Constitution Protects Attorney-Client Communication

Arizona death row inmate Scott Nordstrom alleged that a prison officer read a letter he was sending to his attorney in 2011 despite the fact that the mail was labeled “legal mail.” He filed a civil rights lawsuit against the Arizona Department of Corrections but a district court dismissed his complaint. However, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals recently ruled that prison officials violated Nordstrom’s Sixth Amendment rights by reading his legal mail.
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Prison officials argued that they need to be allowed to inspect all inmate mail in order to “establish the absence of contraband and ensure the content of the mail is of legal subject matter.” However, the Court of Appeals established a difference between inspecting mail for contraband and actually reading letters.

In a split decision, the court said that allowing prison officials to read legal mail would have a “chilling effect” on the Sixth Amendment rights of inmates to disclose personal information, including incriminating evidence, to counsel because inmates might choose not to disclose such information out of fear of prison officials seeing it.

Can Prison Officials Read Emails?

While the ruling protects the rights of inmates, there is a related issue before the court that has yet to be resolved. Letters between inmates and attorneys will be secure, but technology has caused most people to ditch snail mail for email. Should emails sent between inmates and their lawyers have the same legal protections as letters?

Thus far, different state courts have reached varying decisions on how to handle emails sent by inmates, and it will be interesting to see what final decisions are made.

What Does Wallin & Klarich Think?

At Wallin & Klarich, we believe that the legal system must uphold inmates’ constitutional rights to freely and openly communicate with their lawyers. Whether people in custody strongly believe that they are innocent or understand they are guilty, they must be able to convey their reasoning to their attorneys without fear of incriminating themselves.

The ruling is a smart decision that will allow attorneys to properly assess the circumstances of each case and provide an accurate strategy for defense to achieve the best possible outcome in each individual case. It also allows inmates to feel safe in communicating with their attorney.

We want to know what you think about this decision. Should prison officials be able to read inmates’ legal mail? Should emails be granted the same protection as legal mail? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

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About Wallin & Klarich

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Wallin & Klarich was established in 1981. Over the past 32 years, our law firm has helped tens of thousands of families in their time of legal need. Regardless of whether our clients faced criminal or DUI charges, the loss of their driving privilege, or wanted to clean up their criminal record, we have been there to help them.