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Jail Mail from Attorney Must Be Opened in Inmate’s Presence, 7th Circuit Says

Posted Sep 21, 2010 2:52 PM CDT
By Martha Neil

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Seeking to strike a balance between legitimate prison security concerns and an inmate's right to confer confidentially with his or her attorney, a federal appeals court in Chicago has ruled that state officials must open such mail only in the presence of the inmate, to insure that legitimate "legal mail" is merely glanced at, rather than read.

But an inmate's attorney correspondent isn't sacrosanct, the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals says in an opinion yesterday written by Judge Richard Posner. Prison officials have good reason, a three-judge panel says, to open legal mail to determine that it is, in fact, from a lawyer and take a brief look at the letter to determine that it discusses a legitimate matter, according to the State Bar of Wisconsin.

While finding that officials didn't interfere unduly with the legal mail rights of the prisoner in the case at bar, the appeals court went into detail about what is and isn't allowed to provide guidance for the future. The 7th Circuit predicated its ruling on an inmate's constitutional right to effective assistance of counsel, which cannot be obtained if the confidentiality of attorney-client communications isn't maintained.

The case is Cesar Guajardo-Palma v. Martinson, No. 10-1726.

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