Jennifer Underwood’s husband is awaiting trial at the Flagler County Inmate Facility for sexual abuse charges. While there, the only mail his wife, Jennifer, can send him is postcards, per the jail’s policy.
“I miss my husband terribly and just want to be able to write him a letter about what is going on at home and with the kids without exposing our personal life in a postcard that can be read by anyone,” Underwood said in a statement. “A postcard has just enough space to say, ‘I miss you and I wish you were here.’ But the truth is that I have a lot more that I need to share with my husband right now than I can’t put on the tiny, approved postcard.”
The American Civil Liberties Union and the Florida Justice Institute filed a lawsuit against Jim Manfre, Flagler County’s sheriff, because of this policy, which they call unconstitutional. Underwood is acting as plaintiff in the case.
Manfre didn’t hear of the lawsuit until Feb. 20, the same day it was announced to the public. Since his tenure as sheriff has lasted six weeks, he feels that a conversation, not a lawsuit, would have been more appropriate.
“The Sheriff’s Office continues to pay for the sins of the former sheriff,” Manfre said. “We are policy by policy going through and changing what needs to be changed. This issue isn’t one we had gotten to yet.”
The lawsuit pushed the topic up on Manfre’s priorities list, though.
He said he and his staff are currently reviewing the policy to determine why it was adopted and whether it needs to be changed.
The postcard-only policy was implemented in January 2011. It requires that postcards sent to inmates be no smaller than 3½-by-5½ inches and no larger than 4¼-by-6.
A statement released by the Sheriff’s Office at the time said the policy would make mail more secure and would free up staff time.
Under current policy, inmates can mail letters to people outside of the jail, but they can only receive post cards. A statement by the ACLU and the FJI criticizes the size and the public nature of post cards, but Manfre said the policy was likely less about screening correspondence and more about reducing contraband introduced into the jail.
“To simply institute a lawsuit without a conversation first, to me, is an abuse of the process,” Manfre said. “After we review our policy, if necessary, we will change it.”
Manfre said there is no law that prevents the jail from its policy.
“It should be common sense that a wife shouldn’t lose the ability to communicate with her husband, when he is held in jail, awaiting trial, and is presumed to be innocent,” said Yvette Acosta MacMillan, a staff attorney for the ACLU of Florida and counsel in the case, in a statement. “The Flagler County (Inmate Facility)’s policy violates the rights of both prisoners and their correspondents. When people can’t share information freely, everyone suffers.”
The policy applies not only to convicted inmates, but also to those awaiting trial. The ACLU and FJI said that unfairly punishes inmates awaiting trial and treats them as though they’ve already been found guilty.
Restricting contact with those outside of jail does not only infringe on Constitutional rights, the two agencies said, but it also can prevent former offenders from reintegrating with the communities they came from. Maintaining connections with friends and family keeps former offenders invested in their communities, which reduces the likelihood of repeat offenses, the ACLU and FJI argue.
The ACLU and FJI won a similar case in 2012, when they challenged a postcard-only policy in the Santa Rosa County Jail. The Santa Rosa sheriff abandoned the policy and paid $135,000 in attorneys’ fees and costs to the ACLU and FJI for their efforts in securing the judgment.