By chris conrad
The Jackson County Sheriff's Department is once again allowing the American Civil Liberties Union to send sealed mail to jail inmates after the organization filed a lawsuit in federal court.
The ACLU filed suit against the county on June 6, claiming the Sheriff's Department violated its freedom-of-speech rights when the department dropped the ACLU from a list of representatives who could send "privileged mail" to inmates.
The Sheriff's Department defined privileged mail as correspondence sent from a governor, sheriff, jail commander, attorney general, the state corrections division, a judge or the inmate's attorney of record. The ACLU and legal-aid organizations were included on the list.
The roots of the conflict between the ACLU and the Sheriff's Department reach back to March 2009.
The ACLU, reacting to news reports and inmate complaints about conditions in the Jackson County Jail, sent out surveys to all inmates.
In July 2011, the Sheriff's Department informed the ACLU that its correspondence was no longer considered privileged mail.
That meant any correspondence to or from the ACLU had to be printed on an open postcard.
"This put the inmates in a tough situation," said ACLU legal director Kevin Diaz. "Many of them might not feel comfortable speaking about conditions in the jail on a postcard."
The sheriff's department has since reconsidered and changed its policy to include ACLU correspondence once again as legal mail, sheriff's spokeswoman Andrea Carlson said.
Sealed legal mail can still be opened by jail staff to check for contraband, but the letters are opened in the presence of the inmate and the staffer cannot read the correspondence.
Diaz said he heard that possible changes were coming to the mail policy, but the ACLU has not received formal notice.
"We are hoping to see something soon that lets us know we are on the same page," Diaz said. "We hope we are."
Diaz would not comment on whether the ACLU would drop its lawsuit in the coming days.
"We don't want to speculate yet," he said.
Reach reporter Chris Conrad at 541-776-4471; or email email@example.com.
This story originally appeared in Medford Mail Tribune.