My Aunt Mabel, who was confined against her will in a locked South Carolina dementia ward three years ago, died in January at 92, having never again been permitted to speak to or correspond with her beloved "big sister" and lifetime closest friend, my 94-year-old mother.
Mabel was stripped of her mail and phone "privileges" shortly after she was incarcerated, when it became known that she was trying to enlist our help in regaining her freedom. She pleaded with us to find her a lawyer. When Mabel's daughter found out, she ordered that her mother's phone and mail privileges be revoked. The facility complied. Mabel never received any of our letters, cards or gifts. Worst of all, she never understood why we had suddenly "abandoned" her.
I continued to research her case, and I came across a 16-page document in county courthouse records, pertaining specifically to her. All that was required to regain her freedom and autonomy was for her to sign it. I was positively exhilarated.
The postal clerk agreed that I should send it "certified," to get around the facility's interference with Mabel's mail delivery.
The care facility's front desk refused twice to accept delivery. I was livid. I contacted the office of the U.S. Postmaster General, and asked that my aunt's right to receive mail be enforced. After "intense negotiations" with care-facility executives, the postmaster general's chief counsel declined to press the matter, lamely asserting that the Postal Service can't "force its way" onto private property. Property rights, in other words, supersede human rights.
There was no need for the postal service to "force its way" onto the premises. All the carrier needed to do was to ask the front desk to summon my aunt to sign for the package. When the facility refused to do so, he should have called a federal marshal to ensure that my aunt's right to receive mail was enforced.
Instead, the document was returned to me, and the postal service said, "the case is closed." My aunt remained a prisoner, illegally isolated from the outside world, and the declaration that could have saved her remains on my desk to this day, unopened.
This could happen to anyone in a health care or long-term residential facility, which should scare all of us. If you are serving a life sentence for murder in a maximum security prison, you are entitled to send and receive mail. It cannot be opened, censored or withheld without a court order.
But if you should ever enter, with or without your consent, a care facility, you lose your right to receive mail. In fact, failure to receive mail is the second most common complaint received by state ombudsmen for long-term care.
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, and court decisions.
This inscription can be found on the building that was formerly the Washington, D.C., Post Office:
"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 elderly, lonely and ill?
The U.S. Code requires that the 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 constitutional responsibilities, and we must take action.
Sylvia Kronstadt, a semi-retired writer and editor, lives in Salt Lake City and blogs at kronstantinople.blogspot.com.