Pa. DOC catches flack for inmate mail policy

Under a new policy, state prison inmates receive copies of mail after it is processed by the DOC, which some say violates inmates' civil rights

By Patrick Buchnowski
The Tribune-Democrat

SOMERSET, Pa. — One Somerset County attorney is crying foul over the state Department of Corrections’ new policy for processing inmate mail.

Under the new policy, state prison inmates receive copies of mail after it is processed by the DOC.

Public defender Michael Kuhn is representing Paul Jawon Kendrick, 23, who is charged with murdering SCI-Somerset Sgt. Mark J. Baserman, 60, in February.

Kuhn said he visited Kendrick in SCI-Huntingdon to hand-deliver 60 pages of discovery material.

Kuhn was surprised when prison officials told him that he needed to mail the document and that the prison would provide copies for the inmate.

“It’s a violation of my client’s civil rights,” Kuhn said.

“I don’t want the DOC to see the discovery, which is for my client’s eyes only.”

Discovery is a legal process by which prosecutors must give police reports, medical documents, crime scene photos and other evidence to defense attorneys to prepare for trial.

Such complaints are not uncommon, said Sara Rose, senior staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union in Pittsburgh.

Defense attorneys across the commonwealth also have expressed concern about the DOC policy.

“The experience of Mr. Kuhn shows that there are no reasonable alternatives for lawyers to communicate with their clients other than the mail,” Rose said.

“It’s a very serious concern whether the confidentiality of a document mailed to a client in state prison can be maintained under the new policy.”

In an email statement, Susan McNaughton, communications director for the DOC, clarified the policy, saying attorneys are allowed to pass legal documents to inmates.

“Legal counsel should be allowed to provide legal documents, subject to search, to the inmates during visits,” McNaughton said.

“I’ve passed this info along, and our staff will reach out to Huntingdon.”

The introduction of the DOC policy followed a 12-day lockdown in September of all state prisons, which the DOC said was necessary to protect guards from “unknown substances” that have entered the facilities.

Kuhn and Kendrick appeared in Somerset County court on Tuesday to ask President Judge D. Gregory Geary to intervene.

“I wanted to be able to hand him discovery so he could take it back to prison with him,” Kuhn said.

The judge denied the motion.

“I was surprised the judge did not let me give the paperwork to my client,” he said.

Kuhn said he will try again to hand-deliver discovery material when he next visits Kendrick in prison.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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