Fort Lauderdale woman has forged connections between inmates and outsiders for nearly 30 years
By Mike Clary
South Florida Sun Sentinel
3:23 PM EDT, May 5, 2009
A Fort Lauderdale woman who for nearly 30 years has provided inmates with pen pals outside prison walls says the state is violating her right to free speech by censoring her operation.
In a federal lawsuit filed today by the Florida Justice Institute, Joy Perry challenges Department of Corrections officials for rejecting some of her mailings to prisoners seeking correspondents. They are citing a 2005 rule designed to clamp down on inmates who use the mail to solicit money or run scams.
Perry, a great-grandmother in her 70s, runs from her home two nonprofit organizations, Freedom Through Christ Prison Ministry and Prison Pen Pals. Over the years, Perry said, she has helped make connections between thousands of prisoners in Florida and other states and those on the outside.
Recently, said Perry, prison officials have begun returning some of her mail and punishing inmates who use pen pal services.
"I'm trying to reach them with the gospel, but also just trying to find pen pals," said Perry, who finances her operations with charitable donations. "These guys need friends. The majority are going to get out, and they need encouragement."
Gretl Plessinger, a spokeswoman for the corrections department, said the section of the rule cited in the lawsuit bans inmates from soliciting pen pals or advertising for money, goods or services.
"Historically, what we've seen is that inmates who solicit for pen pals take advantage of them," Plessinger said. "This is to protect the public."
The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Jacksonville, asks a federal judge to order the state to stop blocking Perry's mail and to declare the rule unconstitutional.
"The state says you can have a pen pal but you can't advertise for one," said Randall Berg, Florida Justice Institute executive director. "So how you are to get one if you're in prison is beyond me."
Pen pal services allow "many of these lonely and forgotten inmates [to] attempt to make and establish new friendships in the free world," the lawsuit states. "The process of forging new friendships in the free world from within prison walls has historically been done through pen-pal relationships."
"This rule substantially chills plaintiffs' ability to communicate with their current and potential inmate subscribers and violates Plaintiffs' rights under the First and Fourteenth Amendments," according to the complaint. The First Amendment protects speech and religion; the Fourteenth guarantees equal protection under the law.
In addition to the two organizations Perry runs, plaintiffs also include Writeaprisoner.com, an Edgewater-based Web company run by Adam Lovell that charges inmates $40 a year to place personal ads and seek pen pals through the Internet.
The annual fee also covers the cost of printing any e-mail correspondence received by the organization on behalf of prisoners, and mailing it to inmates. State prisoners are barred from using e-mail.
In addition to the state corrections department, the suit names as defendants the wardens of two men's prisons, Union Correctional Institution and Florida State Prison, and Lowell Correctional Institution, which houses women.
Mike Clary can be reached at mclary@SunSentinel.com or 305-810-5007.