Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Please Mr. Postman: Deliver the Letter (the sooner the better)

Nursing Homes Can Legally Deprive Your Loved Ones of Mail

         It is against federal law to interfere with delivery of the mail. But the United States Postal Service is doing just that, by being a willing accessory to the interception and destruction of mail addressed to those who are confined to long-term care facilities.
    If you are serving a life sentence for murder in a maximum security prison, you are entitled to receive your mail. It cannot be opened, censored or withheld without a court order.
    But care faciliities operating under the same U.S. Constitution have been allowed by the United States Postal Service to intercept mail -- letters, legal documents and gifts -- addressed to sick, lonely, aged residents. The residents aren't even made aware that mail has been sent to them. Even legal documents informing the resident of his or her rights can be withheld. Thanks to explicit postal service policy, this could easily happen to you or a loved one.

    If you are confined to any nursing home or long-term care facility, you essentially lose your right to receive mail, which is a constitutionally protected right. The postal service delivers mail to the front desk, and it regards anything that happens to your mail after that to be beyond its interest or purview, according to David Stanton, the agency's managing counsel.
    In the vast majority of cases, of course, the facility does properly distribute mail to its residents, although failure to do so is the second most common complaint received by state ombudsmen for long-term care
    But if a facility failed to provide your mail to you, for whatever reason -- punishment, behavior management or a family member who wants to keep you isolated from the outside world -- you would have no recourse. You wouldn't even have the right to know that the postal service attempted to deliver mail to you, or whom it was from. It would be natural, in this circumstance, to feel that everyone has abandoned you as you sink deeper into despair and become "institutionalized," ie someone who disappears into her room and doesn't create any problems for the staff.
    It took prison inmates years to establish the right to receive mail.  We need another federal court order, and we can build on the inmates' precedent.
    The Postmaster General’s legal counsel told me that the agency can’t “force its way onto private property” to ensure that residents’ mail is delivered. Thus it seems that postal service policy is clear: Property rights supersede Constitutional rights. I hate to quote President Bush -- even the nicer one -- but "this will not stand."
    The First Amendment includes the right of all Americans to receive information and ideas. Mail protections are grounded in the Fourth Amendment, federal criminal and civil statutes, postal statutes and regulations, and court decisions. The postal service is one of the few government agencies explicitly authorized by the U.S. Constitution.
    A prisoner‘s right to the free flow of incoming and outgoing mail has become firmly established in case law.  “Prison walls do not form a barrier separating prison inmates from the protections of the Constitution,” Turner v. Safley, 482 U.S. (1987). “[N]or do they bar free citizens from exercising their own constitutional rights by reaching out to those on the ‘inside.’” Thornburgh v. Abbott, 490 U.S. 401, 407 (1989). “Access [to prisoners] is essential to ... families and friends of prisoners who seek to sustain relationships” with prisoners.”
    Why should it be any different for someone who is sick and/or old? They are just as needy and deserving of familial support as prisoners are.
    The current inconsistency is preposterous and has no basis in either law or common sense.
    More and more of us are likely to wind up eventually in one of these residential facilities. We'd better get our rights firmly entrenched in the law while we still have the competence to do so.
   This inscription can be found on the building that was formerly the Washington, D.C., Post Office and now is the home of the Smithsonian Institution's National Postal Museum:
Messenger of Sympathy and Love
Servant of Parted Friends
Consoler of the Lonely
Bond of the Scattered Family
Enlarger of the Common Life
    Who could possibly be more deserving of these sentiments than those who are lonely and isolated?
    The U.S. Code requires that the United States Postal Service “provide prompt, reliable, and efficient services to patrons in all areas and shall render postal services to all communities.”
    "All communities" means ALL, including those that are on private property.
    The Postal Service is not living up to its Constituional responsibilities, and we must take action.
    In a future post, I will be reporting on what we have done so far to deal with this crime.

    My aunt, who was confined against her will in a locked dementia ward three years ago, has died. Until she was stripped of her phone and mail "privileges," she begged me to help her regain her freedom. The evidence that she did not belong there was overwhelming. The document I sent her that would have required just her signature in order for her to get out of there was rejected at the front desk. The Postmaster General's office tried to reason with the facility's administrators, but soon gave up. 
    Why did they feel the need to "reason" with people who were denying my aunt's basic rights? Why did the Postal Service so readily abrogate its legal responsibility?
     My certified "mail piece," as they called it, was returned to me.
    My aunt had no way to know what I was attempting to do on her behalf, nor did she realize that my mother -- her beloved "big sister" -- was sending letters, cards, cash and gifts to her in South Carolina several times a month. None of it ever reached her. She and my mother never had any communication again. I assume she believed that we had given up and abandoned her. We grieved for her loneliness and confusion. The fact that her suffering is now over does little to assuage our pain.

I "went postal" and the postal service refused to explain or defend its unconstitutional policy. Snow and sleet may not deter them, but if anyone just says "no," they back off.