Inmate letter writer gets $350 in NCSO suit

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A settlement reached earlier this year between the sheriff’s office and a former inmate have led to changes in the county inmate mail policy.

Jesse Aaron Ross, a former Nye County Detention Center inmate who is currently serving a life sentence in the state prison system, was awarded $350 in legal fees and a promise of a new county inmate mail policy following a lawsuit he filed in March 2012.

In the suit, Ross claimed the former mail policy violated both his and other inmates’ rights to free speech by limiting their access to send and receive mail.

“On October 6, 2011, I entered (sic) Nye County Detention Center as a pre-trial detainee up to present date. That on March 1, 2009 the Nye County Sheriff’s Department enacted a (sic) addendum to current mail policy’s (sic) affecting my rights of freedom of speech as well as due process. That these rights are afforded to me a pre-trial detainee as a pre-trial liberty under the presumption of innocence,” Ross wrote in his complaint.

“I was informed that the Undersheriff Rick Marshall did in fact revise the mail policy at the Pahrump/Tonopah facilities. The addendum created March 1, 2009, stated that all pre-trial detainees in custody of NCSO could no longer send or receive letters written on regular size (8 ½ x 11 ¾) paper in envelopes. That only post cards (3x5 or 5x8) could be sent and received,” he added.

Ross sued the NCSO, Sheriff Tony DeMeo and Asst. Sheriff Rick Marshall for allegedly violating his civil rights and asked for relief in the form of $10 per day since his incarceration, $350 in filing fees and a ruling that the then current mail policy be found unconstitutional and a new one be constructed allowing all inmates to send and receive regular mail.

Nearly a year later, on Feb. 19, the parties entered into a settlement agreement where the sheriff’s office agreed to pay Ross’s filing fees for the lawsuit and to implement a new mail policy for the county jails.

It was also agreed that the lawsuit would be dismissed and both the sheriff’s office and Ross would forever release one another from any other debts or liabilities related to this specific case.

“My lawsuits were filed in good faith, not to gauge the county for monetary damages!” Ross wrote in a letter to the Pahrump Valley Times last week. “I have demonstrated this by only accepting $350 to pay the filing fee and a change in the mail policy. ‘It is not for ourselves we sue, litigate and fight, it is for the vindication of fundamental civil rights we labor.’ – J.A. Ross.”

The new eight-page policy is much more detailed and precise about the rules for inmate mail than the former single-page policy in place before.

According to the new policy, which was put into effect on Dec. 3, before the settlement was signed, encourages inmates to continue to correspond with family and friends through letters to help “maintain ties with friends and family that will aid in their reintegration process,” once they are released.

“No mail restrictions will be imposed except for the safety and security of staff and inmates and the safety and security of the institution,” the policy reads.

Though inmates are now allowed to send and receive both letters and postcards within reason, the new policy also notes mail will be sent back to the sender if it includes any prohibited substances, including stickers, lipstick marks, hairspray residue, powders, nude photos or other materials deemed to be unacceptable.

Detention staff is now required to write a letter to the inmate explaining why the mail was rejected and sent back to the sender.

An indigent mail program has also been established under the new policy, allowing inmates who can’t afford to purchase writing materials from the commissary to receive a “writing pack” each week containing two stamped envelopes, four sheets of paper and a pencil. The inmate’s name is written on the items by detention staff before they are given the materials to ensure they are not traded for other goods.

Ross said in his letter he was glad to see the changes, and hoped for a similar outcome in another case he is currently litigating against the sheriff involving his office’s medical policy and providing access to doctors and care to inmates.