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Federal judge: County jail ban on incoming mail and periodicals is justified

Strafford County House of Corrections in Dover (file photo)

A federal judge is declining to overturn the Strafford County House of Corrections’ policy of not allowing inmates to receive postal mail or books, ruling that the ban is a rational response to fears of fentanyl-soaked letters sent to the facility.

The Florida-based Human Rights Defense Center, which publishes books and periodicals aimed at incarcerated people, including Prison Legal News, sued the jail in 2022, arguing its rejection of materials sent to inmates through the mail violated its constitutional rights.

After imposing a ban on incoming mail in 2017, the jail expanded the prohibition to include books and magazines sent directly from publishers in 2020. The decision came after multiple inmates overdosed on suspected narcotics that had been soaked into paper materials mailed to inmates, according to court paperwork.

Instead of snail mail, inmates were given electronic tablets that allow them to communicate with friends and loved ones through email and video calls. The tablets also allow access to legal reference materials and a range of publications.

In an order released Thursday, New Hampshire District Judge Landya McCafferty ruled that the HRDC’s request for a preliminary injunction against the policy wasn’t warranted, finding that the jail’s actions were justified in the face of the threat of contraband. McCafferty also noted that the jail has included HRDC’s materials in its physical libraries for inmates to review.

“In weighing these factors, courts must grant significant deference to prison administrators’ professional judgment,” McCafferty wrote, adding that there are “ready alternatives,” including the prison library and electronic tablets for inmates to access materials, including HRDC publications.

The case remains open, with no trial date yet scheduled.

Todd started as a news correspondent with NHPR in 2009. He spent nearly a decade in the non-profit world, working with international development agencies and anti-poverty groups. He holds a master’s degree in public administration from Columbia University.
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