ACLU sues Morgan County Jail over mail delivery

Morgan County officials are violating people’s constitutional rights when they confiscate mail sent to detainees in the jail, the American Civil Liberties Union charged in a federal lawsuit filed last week.

The St. Louis-based ACLU of Eastern Missouri (ACLU-EM) also asked U.S. District Judge Nanette K. Laughrey to certify the case as a class action, and to issue a preliminary injunction.

The key issue, the five-page lawsuit said, is that officials don’t inform the person who sent the mail that was confiscated and not delivered to the inmate — and that officials don’t give the sender a chance to fight the decision.

“The (U.S.) Supreme Court has held that the First Amendment entitles prisoners to receive and send mail, subject to censorship only when there are procedural safeguards,” Jeffrey Mittman, the ACLU-EM’s executive director, said in a Friday evening news release. “Morgan County’s complete lack of due process fails to protect senders of mail that is wrongfully censored.”

Anthony Rothert, the ACLU-EM’s legal director, filed the lawsuit on behalf of Tara Ballenger, an Oregon state resident who — in the lawsuit’s words — “is not incarcerated” and “has regularly sent printed materials, including letters, newspaper and magazine clippings, photocopies of newspaper and magazine articles, and books, to a detainee at the Morgan County Adult Detention Center.”

That inmate is not identified in the lawsuit or any of the supporting documents the ACLU released Friday.

The suit said several items Ballenger mailed on at least three different dates last month “have been confiscated by Detention Center personnel without being delivered to the intended recipient.”

Not only did Morgan County officials give Ballenger “no notice of rejections or opportunity to contest rejection decisions,” Rothert wrote in the lawsuit, but “it is the policy and custom of (Morgan County) to not provide notice to senders (when) written materials ... have been rejected, and to not provide senders of written materials that have been rejected the opportunity to contest the rejection decisions.”

And the rejected materials “have not been returned” to Ballenger, the lawsuit said — nor to several other people who have mailed items to the same inmate and also had their mail confiscated.

Those other senders are not named, but are the basis for the class-action request.

Ballenger “is a member of a class of current and future individuals who send, or will send, written materials intended for recipients who are confined in the Morgan County Adult Detention Center,” Rothert wrote. “The total number of persons in the class of current and future individuals who send, or will send, (those) materials ... is so numerous that (including as plaintiffs) all members of the class would be impracticable.

“In addition, it is not possible to identify all individuals who will send written materials (to) the Morgan County Adult Detention Center in the future.”

But all of those potential victims of the county’s policy are having their 14th Amendment rights violated by it, the ACLU lawsuit argues.

The amendment was adopted after the Civil War, in 1868, and makes several changes in federal constitutional policies.

The ACLU lawsuit focused on the second part of the amendment’s first section, which says: “No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”

Rothert argued in the lawsuit that the amendment gives Ballenger and others “the right to individualized notice (when Morgan County) rejects written materials directed to a detainee (and) the right to a process by which they have an opportunity to challenge (the county’s) rejection of written materials.”

The lawsuit asks the federal court to declare Morgan County jail’s mail censorship policies “violate the Constitution” and to require the county to notify anyone whose mail wasn’t delivered, giving that person the chance to contest the decision and have it overturned.

The lawsuit also seeks that Morgan County be ordered to pay Ballenger “costs, including reasonable attorneys’ fees,” and to order “such other and further relief as is just and proper under the circumstances.”

No date was set for a hearing on the suit.

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