A recent Putnam Superior Court order rejecting inmate filings from the Putnamville Correctional Facility has prompted a federal lawsuit on behalf of an inmate by the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana.

Inmate Joseph E. McDowell is challenging the Jan. 15 order signed by Judge Charles D. Bridges, who cited — but did not elaborate upon — some letters “being treated with illegal substances” before they reach the court.

McDowell claims he cannot file an action to challenge his confinement in prison due to an alleged parole violation.

Ken Falk

Ken Falk

The method for an inmate in Indiana to challenge imprisonment is through a petition for a writ of habeas corpus filed in the county of incarceration. Absent an attorney to represent him, McDowell must file the petition himself.

“I don’t know the motivation behind the policy, but it is problematic to close the door of the courthouse on this,” ACLU attorney Ken Falk said Thursday.

The judge’s order affects every inmate at the prison, Falk said, and violates the access to courts secured by the U.S. Constitution as well as the Open Courts Clause of the Indiana Constitution.

The lawsuit filed Wednesday in Terre Haute in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana, says McDowell sent a filing titled “verified petition for writ of habeas corpus” to the Putnam County Clerk in late November 2019.

He never received a response to the petition, and he sent it again in late December 2019, the complaint says.

McDowell has not heard from the court, except to receive a copy of the judge’s order filed Jan. 15.

The order signed by Bridges says, “The court has been informed that some filings from the Putnamville Correctional Facility (PCF) are being treated with illegal substances prior to the Court’s Clerk receiving them. Therefore, the Court has suspended processing any and all filings submitted from PCF until further notice. Do not contact the Court inquiring about the status of any previously filed complaints. They will be processed, if possible, returned, or destroyed as contraband.”

Circuit Clerk Heather Gilbert referred questions to the judge.

Judge explains

Judge Bridges said he issued the order after being told by prison investigators that some court filings were reportedly being sent to third parties before being sent to the court.

The third parties reportedly applied a form of fentanyl (a powerful opioid) to the mailings before sending them on to the court. If those paper documents were mailed back to the prison as legal mail from the courts, the prison staff could not open them, Bridges said.

The inmates could receive the tainted paper, then rip up the documents to ingest the substances.

Bridges said he contacted the Indiana Court Services office in November for guidance on the problem, and he was told not to accept filings from the prison and to await further instruction. He said he is concerned court staff and other people would be exposed to the contaminated documents.

In an ongoing attempt to resolve the problem, Bridges said, he met Thursday with Putnamville warden Brian Smith and learned that a dedicated email account will be set up to receive court filings from inmates. Electronic copies will be sent back to inmates.

The plan is to have that process up next week, Bridges said.

Putnamville Warden Brian Smith confirmed the same system used to send electronic documents to the federal courts will now be set up for Judge Bridges’ court.

Smith said he received permission Thursday to set up the pilot program, and it could be extended to other facilities.

Mail contaminated with illegal substances is an issue at many locations, Smith added.

Both Bridges and Smith said they were unaware the federal lawsuit was filed this week.

The court docket shows notice of the lawsuit was sent to Bridges and the clerk Thursday.

Falk said he wants to find out how much the order has decreased the volume of mail going to the clerk from the prison. Local rules of practice for the Putnam Circuit and Superior Courts sends all actions filed by jail or prison inmates to the superior court as miscellaneous cases.

Spokesperson Brooke Edwards at the Putnamville prison said the judge’s order has not stopped the prison from processing and sending outgoing mail from inmates to the Putnam Superior Court.

“We are still doing what we’re required to do,” Edwards said.

All outgoing mail is reviewed through a protocol that includes examination for unapproved items and substances, she said.

Lisa Trigg can be reached at 812-231-4254 or at lisa.trigg@tribstar.com. Follow her on Twitter at TribStarLisa.

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