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Tennessee jailers accused of keeping mail sent to prisoners: Is that legal?

Prison Legal News says at least 147 items sent to prisoners by the advocacy group were not delivered because they were not on postcards.

A prisoners’ rights advocacy group says a Tennessee county is requiring inmates to send and receive postcards instead of letters, effectively censoring their mail.

Prison Legal News filed a lawsuit on Tuesday to put a stop to the postcard requirement. They cite at least 147 items the nonprofit group sent to inmates since November of 2014 as having been censored.

Jail policy is that all personal mail to inmates must be on standard postcards with preprinted stamps. The group is also seeking a temporary court order to stop the policy as the case is taken through the courts.

This mail censorship lawsuit is the latest example of a national push for prison reform spurred by an unprecedented swelling of the number of people incarcerated in US jails and prisons and reports of mistreatment of inmates.

The rate of incarceration in the United States – the highest in the world – has prompted legislators on both sides of the aisle to reexamine mandatory minimum sentences.

“There is an urgent need to address the astronomical growth in the prison population, with its huge costs in dollars and lost human potential,” Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and conservative activist Pat Nolan wrote in 2011. “The criminal-justice system is broken, and conservatives must lead the way in fixing it."

But equally salient in recent years, has been the issue of prisoner rights.

In March, a photo surfaced from the Burruss Correctional Training Center in Forsyth, Ga., that some compared to Abu Ghraib torture pictures. In the image, three shirtless African-American prisoners are standing in a mirror. One of them points his fingers, like a gun, at the camera, another holds a makeshift leash, and the third is on his knees with the leash around his neck, his eyes swollen from a beating.

Recommended: After 39 years in prison, an epic tale of innocence found and bitterness lost

Action in response to the photo was immediate, with the victim in the image placed in protective custody. The incident provided a graphic lens into how prisoners treat each other. However, it also highlighted many flaws in the prison system. None of the guards heard the mass beating and a crackdown on contraband revealed many cellphones among prisoners.

Other prison protocols regarding the treatment of inmates have recently been called into question. 

In September, California settled a lawsuit to end its controversial practice of indefinite solitary confinement of former gang leaders. The lawsuit was in response to a class-action federal lawsuit filed on behalf of nearly 3,000 inmates.

The situations that arose in Ferguson, Mo., and Baltimore, around the way police treat black suspects have also highlighted the popular pressure for criminal justice reform. And the White House and Congress are listening.

House Speaker John Boehner (R) of Ohio said in July, “We’ve got a lot of people in prison, frankly, that… really don’t need to be there.”

Lawmakers are hopeful that a bipartisan legislation aimed at reforming prisons and sentencing will pass by the end of the year. In the meantime, the Justice Department has ordered the release of 6,000 low-level offenders.

This report contains material from the Associated Press.

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