Opening of prisoners' mail ends

Routine opening of solicitors' letters to prisoners by prison staff in London's Belmarsh prison will stop, the governor said this week, admitting that staff have 'acted erroneously'.

Under rule 39 of the Prisons Rules 1999, prisoners are entitled to correspond with their legal representatives and the court.

Prison governors may only open and read correspondence if there is reasonable cause to believe that it contains illicit content, content of a criminal nature, or it will endanger good order and discipline in the prison.According to Simon Creighton, head of the prison law department at London-based Bhatt Murphy, some prison governors open all solicitors' letters because one or two may have in the past contained cash, which prisoners are not allowed to receive.

'Opening mail is acceptable if there is a targeted suspicion, but opening all solicitors' letters because one or two may be suspect is wrong,' he said.Moreover, Mr Creighton said many prisons do not stick to the standard practice for compliance.

'Governors are meant either to open letters in the presence of the prisoner, or to return them to sender,' he said.

'However, this often is not the case.' Following a protracted correspondence and the threat of judicial review proceedings, Belmarsh prison has conceded in a letter to the Prisoners Advice Service (PAS) that the routine opening of such mail will cease.

Nick Moss, a caseworker at the PAS, welcomed the end of such 'appalling practices', and said: 'Too many solicitors simply put up with the opening of rule 39 mail, and hopefully this decision by Belmarsh will encourage them to mount similar challenges at other prisons.'Victoria MacCallum