The American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire (ACLU-NH) and the law firm Bernstein, Shur, Sawyer & Nelson, P.A. filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of a prisoner’s mother (Y.F.) and 3-year-old son (C.F.), as well as a prisoner's wife (A.R.) and her 12-year-old son (X.G.), challenging the constitutionality of a mail policy imposed by the New Hampshire Department of Corrections (NHDOC) that prohibits prisoners from receiving original drawings and greeting cards in the mail. This policy violates the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution.

During the fall of 2015, Y.F. mailed her son a Thanksgiving card that also contained drawings by the prisoner’s 3-year-old son (C.F.). The card contained the text “I [LOVE] U DADDY” handwritten by C.F. The prison returned the card and drawings, apparently because they violated the mail policy in place since May 1 of 2015.  The NHDOC also rejected a holiday card sent by another client, an 87-year-old grandmother, to an inmate.

With this sweeping policy, the state has eliminated one of the few ways young children can communicate with parents who are in prison.  The policy applies to all original “drawings” and “pictures,” all “greeting cards,” and all “postcards from particular locations or featuring any type of printed design, picture, or depiction.” The ban includes Christmas cards, as well as prayer cards with pre-printed images often sent to individual prisoners by religious organizations.  This is not only cruel, but also counterproductive for New Hampshire’s over 2,200 prisoners and their families waiting for them to come home. Maintaining family bonds is critical for prisoners to successfully reintegrate into society upon release.

On September 20, 2017, this case settled.  As part of the settlement, the NHDOC’s new mail policy will—rather than ban all original handwritten drawings and pictures—allow certain original handwritten drawings and pictures that are done in pen or pencil.  As a result, the new mail policy will—like other state prison mail policies in the country—continue to ban handwritten drawings and pictures that contain markers, crayons, colored pencil, glitter, chalk, lipstick, or adhesive material.  These precautions exist in an effort to prevent Suboxone from being smuggled into prison facilities through the mail.  Greeting cards, given their thickness, will continue to be prohibited under the new policy.

Cooperating Attorney: Edward Sackman from Bernstein, Shur, Sawyer & Nelson, P.A.

 

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