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ACLU lawyers say they’re being barred from interviews at Pa. jail in retaliation for earlier investigations

According to a lawsuit filed Thursday, the policy change does not seem to apply to other attorneys seeking meetings with inmates

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The ACLU of Pennsylvania has filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against Montgomery County Correctional Facility in Eagleton.

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By Vinny Vella
The Philadelphia Inquirer

EAGLEVILLE, Pa. — The ACLU of Pennsylvania has filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the Montgomery County Correctional Facility, contending that a restrictive new policy governing how lawyers meet with incarcerated people applies only to attorneys working with the group to investigate allegations of misconduct at the jail.

The lawsuit, filed Thursday morning, asserts that officials at the county jail have prevented ACLU-affiliated lawyers from meeting with inmates unless they’re representing them in a criminal case. This sudden policy change — which the lawsuit says began in mid-March — does not seem to apply to any other attorneys seeking meetings with inmates at the jail.

“Defendants’ de facto ban on ACLU-affiliated attorneys’ ability to meet and confer with prospective clients and witnesses effectively blocks the ACLU’s ability to provide legal representation to address ongoing constitutional rights violations, and simultaneously insulates [jail officials] from legal accountability,” the lawsuit said.

Lawyers for the ACLU say the policy appears to be retaliatory: It was instituted just days after the county appealed a ruling by the state Office of Open Records compelling officials to release data about prisoner logs to the ACLU. And it came weeks after the ACLU filed a lawsuit alleging the county court system was illegally double-charging defendants to help pay state fees.

In a statement, a county spokesperson said that contrary to what the lawsuit alleges, all lawyers, including those working with the ACLU, are allowed to visit inmates. Officials at the jail have enacted a policy, following state guidelines, to prevent lawyers from visiting the jail to solicit business from inmates who didn’t request a meeting with them, she added.

“We spoke to the ACLU pre-suit and agreed to give them appropriate access, however they chose to file the suit anyway,” the spokesperson said.

Lawyers working with the ACLU conducted “several dozen” interviews with inmates at the jail between October and March without having to file formal appearances as their attorneys, according to the lawsuit.

But on March 5, standing appointments that the ACLU had made were canceled, and its lawyers have been unable to reschedule them under this new policy.

Two of those canceled interviews involved inmates who met with ACLU lawyers before the policy change, and who asked to continue meeting with them. Another inmate’s family had written to the group “expressly seeking the ACLU’s legal assistance on the detained individual’s behalf,” the lawsuit said.

The suit claims there is an “inference of causality” to the policy change, which was communicated to the ACLU by the jail’s assistant director of inmate services, Brian Kniezewski, after its members asked for an explanation for the canceled appointments.

In addition to the legal battles over the open-records case and court costs, the lawsuit mentioned recent settlements the county paid to former public defenders Dean Beers and Keisha Hudson. Beers and Hudson were fired by the county last year after they filed an amicus brief in support of an ACLU lawsuit before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court that alleged illegal bail practices in the county.

Both sued the county over the firings. Hudson settled for $110,000 in December, and Beers settled for $200,000 in February, just weeks before the policy change at the jail, according to the lawsuit filed Thursday.

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