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Federal court lets Indiana prisoners challenge DOC mail restrictions

May 2, 2018

Indiana Department of Correction inmates may challenge DOC directives that restrict their mail, a federal judge ruled, certifying a class action lawsuit against policies that called for the screening or seizure of greeting cards and other forms of mail.

Lead plaintiffs Charles Sweeney and Anthony Delarosa are housed in the Wabash Valley Correctional Facility. They sued DOC seeking an injunction against executive directives dating to April 2017 that variously restricted or eliminated inmates’ receipt of greeting cards, correspondence in colored envelopes or with colored paper, newspaper clippings, or any mail not on white, lined paper in a white envelope.

The stated purpose of the orders was “to impede the introduction of narcotics and synthetic narcotics” within DOC facilities.

Judge William T. Lawrence of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana in Indianapolis certified the class in an order Wednesday and appointed American Civil Liberties Union legal director Ken Falk as class counsel. The class is defined as “all prisoners confined to facilities operated by the Indiana Department of Correction or that are otherwise subject to Indiana Department of Correction executive directives and policies that restrict incoming correspondence.”

Lawrence disagreed with the state’s argument that inmates had not alleged a restriction of their constitutional rights through DOC’s policy of searching and/or seizing any mail to inmates that didn’t conform to its policies. The suit alleges the policy violated inmates’ rights under the First and 14th Amendments.

 “The issue in this case — whether the Executive Directive restricting incoming mail to prisoners is constitutional — affects all prisoners who are subject to it. While different prisoners may be affected by the policy in different ways, all class members need not suffer the same injury as the named class representatives,” Lawrence wrote. Thus, the Plaintiffs’ claims are typical of the class because they arise from the same course of conduct and are based on the same general legal theory.”

The case is Sweeney et al v. Commissioner, Indiana Department of Correction, 1:17-cv-3550.

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