What’s the Difference Between General Mail and Legal Mail in Prison?

What’s the Difference Between General Mail and Legal Mail in Prison?
By Richard McDonald

There are two types of mail in prison: general and legal (or special). General mail includes letters from family, holiday cards and birthday cards. It could also include any other correspondences you might receive. Legal mail is considered special mail. Officers conduct a visual inspection of all mail for contraband regardless of the type.

Mail comes in Monday through Friday. It usually comes in the morning. There is no mail on Saturdays. The correctional officers handle mail call.

Can your mail in prison be refused?

Yes. There are certain rules that all mail must meet. The BOP rejects mail that does not meet these guidelines:

  • Don’t use staples or paper clips.
  • Envelopes must be plain white.
  • Never use marker, crayon, glitter, glue or stickers. 
  • Don’t use perfume or any other fragrance.
  • Any drawings or markings that can be misconstrued as secret code will result in refusal.
  • Never write anything in the letters that you wouldn’t want a third party to read.
Image courtesy of Gerasimov174 on Getty Images via iStock.

Can the BOP read special mail?

In general, no. Special or legal mail is generally privileged. Therefore, the BOP cannot, or at least should not, read it. But, legal and special mail will still be opened by BOP staff.

To protect the attorney-client privilege, officers must deal with legal mail under stricter guidelines. Correctional officers open legal mail in front of the recipient. Since you must be present to receive it, you will receive special mail sooner.

Keep in mind that the BOP is constantly monitoring legal or special mail. They want to ensure that it is truly special or legal mail. The BOP restricts what counts as legal or special mail, too.

Are there requirements for receiving special mail in prison?

Yes. Most BOP offices are reducing the number of attorneys who can use special mail privileges. Other institutions limit “special mail” privileges to attorneys on your record. Some also require that the specific attorney and the specific law firm be identified on the outside.

Special or legal mail must have the following statement: “SPECIAL/LEGAL MAIL – OPEN ONLY IN PRESENCE OF INMATE.”

A lawyer who mails you sealed birthday cards from your family and marks it as “special mail” is abusing the privilege. This can result in disciplinary action and a loss of special mail privileges with that attorney.

Above all, remember that any general correspondence can be made public. It’s best to reserve private conversations for visits.

Are there requirements for sending special mail in prison?

Yes. Most importantly, as indicated above, it needs to say the following: “SPECIAL/LEGAL MAIL – PRIVILEGED DOCUMENTS ENCLOSED.”

You also must include the word “Attorney” somewhere on the envelope. Do not seal outgoing special mail, as the staff will visually inspect it for contraband. You will seal it in the presence of officers.

The Takeaway:

Overall, mail in prison comes in two types: general and special. General mail includes letters from family and friends, birthday cards and other correspondence. Special or legal mail includes documents from your attorney. There are strict rules about what mail in prison is classified as special mail.

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