Iowa prisons suspend legal mail policy that raised constitutional concerns for lawyers


The Iowa Department of Corrections paused on a new policy that required legal mail sent to inmates first be photocopied. The policy was passed over fears that the original documents might be infused with drugs, but the rule has raised constitutional concerns for some lawyers.

Under this policy, correspondence sent by attorneys to inmates in Iowa was photocopied and the originals shredded, due to fears that some people would forge legal mail and dip it into the synthetic drug K2. The paper can then be smoked or ingested, which the DOC says is becoming an increasingly serious problem in state prisons.

But some lawyers and advocates have raised concerns about the rule, which they say threatens detainees’ constitutional right to counsel.

Gregory Sisk, a professor of law at the University of St. Thomas who represents incarcerated clients and has written on rights of detainees to Legal Mail, reviewed the policy at IPR’s request and said he had “never encountered this scenario” before.

“In general, state correctional systems have been very protective of legal mail and recognize that the right to confidentiality in correspondence between a prisoner and his lawyer must be protected,” Sisk told IPR. “The Ninth Circuit described this right as almost sacrosanct. “

Lawyers are ethically required to ensure that their communications with customers are confidential, and some felt they could not do so under policy.

Erica Nichols Cook, who heads the wrongful convictions division in the state’s public defender’s office, wrote a letter this week calling on the department to repeal the policy, which she says has “outraged” her clients.

“[T]its policy in which you open legal mail, make copies and then shred or destroy the originals is a violation of every incarcerated person’s right to a Sixth Amendment lawyer, ”she wrote in a September 7 letter. .

Shortly after IPR published an article detailing constitutional concerns over the new rule, a DOC spokesperson alerted IPR that the photocopying policy had been “put on hold for further consideration.”

“In recent months, staff have identified paper mail itself as a dangerous vehicle for delivering medication to detainees,” DOC spokesperson Sarah Fineran told IPR in an email. “A process for providing photocopies of legal mail has been put in place to ensure the safety of detainees, but it has been suspended for further consideration. “

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