Legal Corner: Your Right to Write

by Cassie Pierson, Staff Attorney, Legal Services for Prisoners with Children
Art by a woman prisonerMost prisoners know that they are allowed to write to whomever they please from prison. California does not limit the number of correspondents you write to although it does place restrictions on letters sent to former prisoners if they were incarcerated within the past twelve months or are currently on parole. Prisoners in different facilities may correspond with one another provided they have received permission from the wardens at each institution. In addition, it is even possible for prisoners at the same facility to receive permission to exchange written or printed materials. (See Title 15 sections 3133, 3139, and 3140).
The ability to keep in touch with family and friends on the outside is extremely important. In fact, for some prisoners, showing they have maintained contact with their children may help them retain parental rights while in prison. At the very least, writing to one’s children helps the prisoner feel like she is still in the role of a parent; someone to whom the child can look for advice and with whom the child can share information about friends, school, and other important things.
In addition to the social aspect of writing letters, many prisoners use writing as an outlet for their creativity. Prisoners in California have the right to retain as their private property any manuscript that they have created. A manuscript is defined in Title 15 section 3000 as: “any written, typed or printed articles of fiction or nonfiction, poems, essays, gags, plays, skits, paintings, sketches, drawings, or musical compositions created by an inmate.” Unless the manuscript contains “contraband” as defined in section 3006 of Title 15, it is the property of the prisoner and may not be impounded. Some examples of contraband would be: coded messages, escape plans, diskettes, descriptions of how to make weapons, and obscene materials.
After you have written your play, poem, or essay and want to send it out for publication, it will be processed as regular mail. This means it will be inspected for contraband and is subject to being read in its entirety before it is mailed. Likewise, when you receive manuscripts in the mail, they are also processed as regular mail. Any incoming or outgoing manuscript can, therefore, be confiscated if it contains matter listed in section 3006 of Title 15. However, a prisoner’s mail should not be delayed or disallowed simply because correctional staff disagree with the sender’s or receiver’s moral values, choice of words, veracity, or attitude.
Lastly, prisoners may wish to publish materials from inside the prison for the enjoyment and education of the other prisoners. Section 3250 of Title 15 provides that with the specific approval of the warden or head of the institution, prisoners may publish and distribute any journal, maga ine, bulletin, newsletter or newspaper within the prison. Of course, there are restrictions on the type of material contained in the publication: no material deemed a threat to the security of the institution or the safety of people; no material that offends any race, gender, religious faith, sexual preference, nationality; no material that is lewd, profane, libelous, sexually suggestive; no material that attacks an individual; no material that attempts to sidestep the appeals process or merely serves as an opportunity to air individual complaints. (See section 3250.1).