Boulder County pays ACLU $65,000 to settle lawsuit over postcard-only jail policy

This week, the Boulder County jail is expected to formally end its policy of restricting inmate mail to postcards only -- and commissioners agreed to pay the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado $65,000 to settle a lawsuit over an issue that an ACLU spokeswoman hopes is now dead in the state.

The postcards-only approach got its start in Boulder thanks to one Gino Rael, a child sex offender accused of sending letters to young girls whose photos he saw in the newspaper. He's said to have asked the recipients "to start a dialogue," complimented them on their cool names, and announced that they were special enough to receive a missive from him and his roommate (Damien Whitehead, another registered sex offender) -- a pair dedicated to bringing back "old-fashioned letter writing."

Of course, authorities would have looked askance at this correspondence under any circumstances. But that Rael sent the letters from jail really sent Division Chief Larry Hank over the edge. He told Westword he thought such problems could be prevented by going to a postcard-only mail policy of the sort that had been instituted in El Paso County, so that jail staffers could make sure nothing improper and potentially illegal was being shipped out.

In August 2010, after the policy was put in place, the ACLU argued in a lawsuit against Boulder County that the postcard plan unconstitutionally limited detainees' right to free speech by forcing them to squeeze all of their words onto a small rectangle and also infringed on their right to have private communication with loved ones, doctors and the like.

The writing's been on the wall in regard to the Boulder policy since December, when El Paso County dumped its postcard policy in the face of a U.S. District Court hearing. On March 21, Boulder County agreed to do likewise within 21 days, with the $65,000 payment intended to cover attorneys fees racked up by the ACLU.

But this sum is less important to ACLU communications director Rosemary Harris Lytle than is the principle that detainees, "some of whom have not yet been convicted of a crime, will be able to resume communications with members of their family, members of the clergy, and perhaps medical professionals -- conversations that should rightfully be protected by privacy rights.

"It is our expectation that with the settlement, as well as the one in El Paso County, will end the practice of postcard-only jail communication in Colorado," she continues. "There are currently no other jails that have such a policy here. But we do also hope it sends a wider message to those around the country who would infringe upon the basic right to communicate with those who are outside of jail.

"Those who are incarcerated face an infringement of their rights, but so do those who they're communicating with about private matters like child-rearing issues and religious issues. And their rights are also infringed upon by these polices. So we hope the settlement in both these lawsuits will send a message that even though you're detained or incarcerated, there are still some rights that courts will uphold, and that organizations like the ACLU will fight to protect."

More from our News archive: "ACLU files claim against ICE for harassing U.S. citizens en route to Amway convention."

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts