By Tracey Kaplan

SAN JOSE -- Santa Clara County jail officials are bracing for an earful from opponents of a proposed policy that would bar families and friends from mailing inmates letters and restrict them to sending small postcards only.

Undersheriff John Hirokawa, who oversees the jails, planned to start the new mail policy this week. But bowing to community objections, he scheduled a meeting for Wednesday evening at the African American Community Service Agency in San Jose.

"I'm willing to listen," Hirokawa said Tuesday. "I haven't made a final decision on this."

The new policy would only affect incoming mail; inmates' outgoing mail privileges will not be changed. Mail from attorneys and other legal correspondence would also be exempt from the new restrictions.

The mail policy -- the only one in the Bay Area and the fifth in the state -- is intended to improve jail safety by shutting down a conduit of drugs and other contraband into the jails. Simple postcards would also reduce the time it takes jail workers to sort through a variety of about 200,000 pieces of mail a year.

Lots of opponents

But opponents say limiting mail to inmates would hinder rehabilitation and unfairly punish the estimated 90-95 percent of outside correspondents who don't make attempts at mail smuggling.

To relieve prison overcrowding, the state has given the county more than $40 million so far to house and rehabilitate inmates who would have been sent to prison in the past. The county's emphasis has been on preparing the inmates for re-entry into society, and opponents contend the mail policy would be counterproductive to that goal.

Even though correspondence from attorneys would be exempt, the public defender's office and inmate-rights groups also are against the change. Other opponents include the NAACP, ACLU and De-bug, a local legal watchdog group, as well as inmates' relatives. At least 100 people are expected to attend the meeting at the African American center.

Jail officials have the administrative authority to make the change without approval from the board of supervisors. It is unclear if the board can modify the new policy or stop it.

Opposition groups have asked Supervisor Joe Simitian, who chairs the public safety committee, to consider the issue at the committee's next meeting on Aug. 8.

Simitian said Tuesday that Sheriff Laurie Smith has assured him she won't make a decision about jail mail without consulting the public safety committee.

While he is "sensitive to the security concerns" raised by jail officials, Simitian noted that postcards "aren't a lot to work with" to achieve the goal of family reunification and successful re-entry without considering "other options." Among the possibilities Hirokawa has raised to maintain contact between inmates and their loved ones are video-visitation and closely monitored email.

Time to study

County officials also have said the pause gives them time to study a recent federal court ruling from Oregon that found restrictions on incoming and outgoing mail in a suburban Portland-area jail unconstitutional. The ruling noted that the policy "prevents an inmate's family from sending items such as photographs, children's report cards and drawings, and copies of bills, doctor reports, and spiritual and religious tracts."

However, the decision is not binding in California. Nationally, the ACLU has won cases in Florida and Colorado, while challenges by inmates and other groups elsewhere have met with mixed results.

The postcard-only trend started in 2007 when Joe Arpaio, the controversial sheriff in Maricopa County, Ariz., banned incoming, nonlegal mail except for postcards, according to the Massachusetts-based Prison Policy Initiative. Nationally, a few dozen out of about 3,000 jails have adopted it. In California, at least four counties have such a policy -- San Diego, Santa Barbara, Ventura and Sacramento.

But Los Angeles County rejected the policy out of concern it would aggravate inmates' mental health problems -- and possibly spark violence. No state prison system has taken it up.

Contact Tracey Kaplan at 408-278-3482. Twitter: @tkaplanreport.

jail mail meeting
WHEN: June 5 (Wed.) 6 p.m.
WHERE: African American Center
ADDRESS: 304 N. 6th Street (at Julian)
San Jose, CA 95112
CONTACT: (408) 292-3157
E-MAIL: info@sjaacsa.org