Return to Sender

The value of private communication seems to have all but disappeared in recent years—public officials recklessly sext and most everyone posts details of their private lives online. But jail inmates have recently raised concerns about the privacy of old-school communications: postcards.

In four Nevada jails, all correspondence between inmates and anyone but attorneys must be written on postcards—visible to other inmates, postal employees and other people at the recipient’s address. That, says the ACLU of Nevada, is a violation of the inmates’—and their correspondents’—First Amendment rights.

After receiving a complaint from a Nevada jail inmate, the ACLU sent letters on July 5 to jails in North Las Vegas, Washoe County, Humboldt County and Nye County, asking officials to change the policy. No other jails or prisons in the state limit written correspondence to postcards.

“We’re hoping for an amicable resolution,” says ACLU of Nevada attorney Allen Lichtenstein. “It’s overkill. It compromises privacy well beyond what is necessary.” None of the four jails’ officials have responded yet. But in other states, a failure to allow communication through letters in sealed envelopes, which correctional officers may open to search for contraband or evidence of illegal activity, prompted lawsuits. In 2010, the ACLU filed federal class-action lawsuits in Florida and Colorado. The issues have yet to be resolved.

In a letter to North Las Vegas jail officials requesting an end to the postcard-only policy, the ACLU’s Rahul Sharma writes, “An inmate (and any of his or her loved ones) are deterred from discussing a variety of sensitive topics, including medical issues, financial matters, complaints about prison conditions and marital or relationship concerns. The need for inmates and those on the outside to censor themselves is strong evidence that the postcard-only policy violates the First Amendment.” To those of us on the outside, so accustomed to failing to censor ourselves, it’s a poignant reminder of the value of private communication. Like so many freedoms, we take it for granted until it’s taken away.