ATLANTA (AP) — People held in a Georgia jail are being denied access to pens, effectively eliminating their ability to communicate with their lawyers by mail, according to a filing in federal court.

Civil rights groups sued Clayton County Sheriff Victor Hill and several of his high-ranking subordinates in July, alleging that overcrowding, a lack of personal protective equipment and limited access to cleaning and sanitation supplies were putting people in the county jail at risk of exposure to the coronavirus. A judge in December approved class-action status for the lawsuit, meaning it would include all current and future detainees.

After lawyers began communicating by mail with a large number of detainees, jail officials abruptly changed policy to declare pens contraband, confiscated all detainees' pens and stopped selling them through the commissary, according to a filing Thursday in federal court.

The “unprecedented policy” has no legitimate purpose, keeps people held in the jail from being able to communicate confidentially with their lawyers by mail and makes it difficult for the lawyers to gather necessary information from their clients, the filing says. It also violates the constitutional rights of the lawyers and their clients and “supports an inference of unlawful retaliation for protected speech,” the filing says.

COVID-19 has already “substantially restricted” the lawyers' access to their clients at the jail, and virtual legal visits last only 30 minutes and cost about $12, the filing says. Given that the class size is roughly 2,000 people, mail is also the most efficient way for the lawyers to communicate with their clients, the filing says.

The filing asks a judge to issue an order to ensure that people held in the jail can communicate with their lawyers by mail.

No one in the sheriff's office responded immediately Monday to a voicemail from The Associated Press seeking comment.

A lawyer with the Southern Center for Human Rights, which filed the class-action suit along with the American Civil Liberties Union, wrote two letters in April to the jail officials' lawyer asking him to investigate and remedy the situation.

In an email that was attached as an exhibit to the court filing, Jack Hancock, the lawyer for the jail officials, said detainees are no longer able to buy or keep pens “as a result of the use of the pens as weapons.” Hancock said detainees can get pens from jail staff but cannot keep them longer than necessary. He also noted that detainees have access to kiosks that allow them to email and text.

Sworn declarations from people held in the jail and attached to the court filing say the pens they used to get were short and extremely flexible, specifically to keep them from being used as weapons. They also say jail staff haven't let them access pens at all since the policy change.