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Verdicts & Settlements

Pennsylvania Prisoners’ Fight for Confidential Legal Mail Yields Settlement

— March 7, 2019

Following a synthetic marijuana scare, the Pennsylvania D.O.C. has acceded to prisoner demands on attorney-client privilege.

Pennsylvania Corrections Secretary John Wetzel says the state is moving toward a settlement on legal mail processing in system prisons.

Wetzel, reports WJACTV, says substantial progress has been made. Now, the government is in negotiations to finalize an agreement.

The plaintiffs include the Abolitionist Law Center, the American Civil Liberties Union-Pennsylvania, the Amistad Law Project and the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project. Also named in a separate but similar suit is an inmate named Devon Hayes, currently incarcerated at SCI-Smithfield in the state’s sparsely-populated center.

Two federal lawsuits were filed after the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections implemented procedures meant to protect employees from exposure to synthetic marijuana. Under its purview, workers were allowed to summon inmates and then open, copy and scan their legal mail.

According to the ACLU and its partners, the policy “disregards the privileged nature of attorney-client communications” and could compromise ongoing cases.

The agency, reports WJACTV, was allowed to keep original copies of correspondences for up to 45 days. The policy was one of many meant to combat smuggling of synthetic marijuana, which officials suspected was soaked into letters.

Man Desperate to Go Back to Prison Robs Bank
Photo by Federico Lancellotti on Unsplash

Perhaps not surprisingly, one lawsuit blasted the procedure as “an exaggerated, irrational response to a non-problem.”

However, Theron Perez, the department’s chief counsel, said they had evidence that colorless, odorless drugs were mixed into ink and applied to a variety of documents. According to Perez, the subterfuge included legal documents.

Wetzel says the policy has since been revised, and that the Department of Corrections has devised new, less controversial screening protocols. He expects they’ll be operative by the beginning of April. Importantly, notes WJACTV, inmates will be able to receive legal mail without forfeiting the confidentiality of corresponding with an attorney.

“The DOC respects the right of attorney-client privilege and recognizes the importance of attorney-client relationships,” Wetzel said in a statement. “At the same time, the DOC has a responsibility to ensure that prisons are safe for those who work and live in them. We feel the plan agreed by the parties meets both of those objectives.”

A separate statement issued by the ACLU and its allies reiterates the department’s line, saying, “The revised screening procedures will respect the rights of prisoners to confidential and privileged attorney-client communications without compromising the department’s efforts to prohibit drug use in the prisons.”

Unhappy with the impending agreement is a corrections officers’ union, which vowed to launch its own litigation if the settlement endangers its members. notes that the settlement doesn’t prohibit screening of inmates’ personal mail, which will be sent to a Florida processing center, opened, scanned and copied before reaching its recipient.

Several sources and articles published on the same date, including from, indicate that a settlement has already been reached. However, a copy of the agreement isn’t expected to be publicly released until next week.


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