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PLN sues Washington DOC over bulk mail censorship

Seattle Times, Jan. 1, 2001.
PLN sues Washington DOC over bulk mail censorship - Seattle Times 2001

The Seattle Times

December 13, 2001, Thursday Fourth Edition

Prison newsletter sues state over mail distribution

Michael Ko; Seattle Times staff reporter

Prison Legal News, a Seattle-based nonprofit monthly distributed internationally and edited by an inmate at the Monroe Correctional Complex, is suing the state alleging interference with its First Amendment right to distribute political speech to prisoners.

The suit, filed last month in U.S. District Court in Seattle, charges that officers in state Department of Corrections mailrooms violate the U.S. Constitution by throwing away subscription-renewal notices, book-order forms and other correspondence sent by the journal to its paid subscribers.

"These mailings educate inmates on how to find a book about prison conditions or how to find the right attorney to handle their appeal," said Jesse Wing, the Seattle attorney representing Prison Legal News and its publisher, Rollin Wright, who lives in Florida.

"No one is censoring the journals themselves," Wing said, "but if the recipients don't know to reorder their subscriptions, on some level it has the same impact."

Thirteen defendants are named in the suit, including state corrections Secretary Joseph Lehman, the department's chief administrator and policy-maker; Deputy Secretary Eldon Vail, and several regional administrators and facility superintendents.

The newsletter, first published in 1990, claims about 3,500 subscribers, 60 percent of whom are inmates in more than 2,000 jails and prisons across the world, according to a spokeswoman.

The monthly, printed on newsprint with no color or photos, contains jail, court and prisoner-related news gleaned worldwide from correspondents behind bars and from newspaper reports. It is edited by Paul Wright, who was sentenced in 1987 to 25 years in prison for murder.

Inmates are allowed to receive mailings they have subscribed to and paid for, said Kasey Myhra, assistant attorney general for the state, who is representing the Department of Corrections in the suit. But secondary items that come in as a result of the subscription are not allowed, she said.

"In this case, the objectives are to reduce contraband, the paper mess and to preserve state resources and not have to hire a mailroom staff to extensively screen junk mail," Myhra said. "(Prison Legal News) subscription forms are available for inmate viewing in the common area. We're definitely not restricting the access to the information itself."

The Department of Corrections has a mailroom policy that prohibits "catalogs," or "a publication which is predominantly or substantially focused on offering items for sale."

Wing argues that policy doesn't apply to Prison Legal News materials because they are protected political speech, "as opposed to a Nordstrom Rack notice telling you about earrings commercial speech that has less protection."

The suit also says the Department of Corrections prohibits delivery of books ordered through Prison Legal News because the latter is not an approved vendor, despite longtime efforts to become one.

Corrections mailroom employees throw away Prison Legal News mailings without giving a legitimate explanation to either the sender or the intended recipient. Wing contends that violates previous court rulings.

Limiting political information to inmates could have "adverse repercussions for self-education," said Wing, especially as Gov. Gary Locke considers cutting funding for prison libraries.

"We as a society have an obligation to make sure that if indeed we have rights, then we afford those rights to prisoners," Wing said. "We have repeatedly seen people, even on death row, who are proven innocent.

"It should be important to our society that these inmates have the education to pursue their claims if necessary."



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