Inmate postcards: "Having wonderful crime, wish you were here"

Jailers in Boulder and Colorado Springs have cracked down on inmate mail, banning personal letters and limiting prisoners to postcards that staff can monitor and intercept if the communication is objectionable. County officials say the practice saves money and makes their operations more secure. But it's also a pretty good way of muzzling pesky complaints to the media about government corruption, waste and abuse.

Jails in several states have recently initiated similar bans, triggering free-speech lawsuits, and the Colorado office of the American Civil Liberties Union is studying the new policies here with a certain degree of salivation. The Boulder County jail went to a postcard-only rule in March, after two sex offenders managed to smuggle out letters to children seeking pen pals. One of the geniuses ended up slapped with a probation violation, while the other wasn't charged.

El Paso County started requiring inmates to use postcards a few weeks ago, claiming that the jail didn't have the staff to inspect suspicious mail and that some jailbirds were using the mail to threaten witnesses and communicate with other felons -- like Mom, no doubt.

Prisoners, of course, have virtually no expectation of a right to privacy. Jail officials insist the policy passes muster as long as the inmates can still send confidential legal mail to their attorneys. But the new policy does effectively limit the kind of information an inmate might be willing to put on a postcard read by anybody -- especially if that information concerns a jailhouse beating, corrupt guards or other problems.

Westword gets its share of that kind of mail, and the recent death of Denver inmate Marvin Booker after a confrontation with taser-wielding deputies underscores the importance of inmate having access to unintimidated communication with the media. They see and hear things reporters could never manage to investigate on their own.

How much of that information can fit on a postcard? About this much: "Can't wait to tell you what's going on here. Will have my lawyer contact you -- if I ever get a lawyer."

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast