Deal near in civil rights lawsuits over prison mail policy

Pennsylvania's prison system says it's close to settling two federal lawsuits over how it processes mail sent to inmates by lawyers.

The Department of Corrections and civil rights groups said Friday they were finalizing a settlement after trial was stopped while the parties negotiated.

At issue is a policy designed to combat drug smuggling in prisons. It was enacted in September after an increase in prison employees seeking medical care for suspected exposure to synthetic marijuana.

MORE: Pennsylvania prisons on lockdown as mystery illnesses probed | Spate of illnesses leads to new prison mail, visit policies

A prisoner and four civil rights groups sued to challenge the policy, which directs prison workers to open legal mail in the inmates' presence, give them copies and keep the originals for 45 days.

Prison officials say that by early April they expect to again provide prisoners with original legal mail documents.