A federal judge ruled yesterday that the state's policy of opening prisoners' legal and court mail outside of their presence is unconstitutional, and he ordered the Department of Corrections to halt the practice.

U.S. District Judge Timothy J. Savage said the state prison system "failed to demonstrate a valid reasonable connection between the asserted legitimate penological interest and the mail regulation."

Susan McNaughton, a spokeswoman for the Department of Corrections, said the department was reviewing the ruling.

Prison officials have said the policy, which permits prison staff to open inmates' incoming legal and court mail outside the presence of inmates, is needed for prison safety and security.

Savage's decision followed a lawsuit filed in May 2002 by three inmates at several state prisons.

Before October 2002, all legal mail was opened in front of the inmate to whom it was addressed.

Savage's ruling does not affect mail from attorneys that is hand-delivered or sent through regular mail.

The former is unsealed, inspected in the presence of a courier, then resealed and personally delivered to the inmate.

Posted mail is treated differently, depending on whether it has a control number on the envelope.

A control number is assigned by the Department of Corrections to attorneys who attest they will not transmit anything other than privileged attorney-client matters.

That mail is opened and inspected only in the presence of the inmate.

If it doesn't have a control number, it is processed as regular mail, meaning it is opened and checked for contraband in the prison mail room before it's delivered to the inmate.

In 2004, Savage said, the prison system's mail policy was changed to include court mail in the control-number procedure.

Prison officials said in court documents that mail is sometimes used to smuggle drugs and explosives in to inmates.

But Savage said officials had offered only "scant evidence" of safety and security threats from court mail.

"Justification for infringing [on] an inmate's constitutional right requires more than an assumption," Savage wrote. "It requires a fact."

Prison officials had cited two 1999 studies that reported that contraband had been smuggled into the prison system through mail designated as legal mail. *