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Local media coverage of PLN's censorship suit against Virginia DOC

Daily Progress, Jan. 1, 2009.
Local media coverage of PLN's censorship suit against Virginia DOC - Daily Progress 2009

Magazine: Prison officials illegally censoring works

By Tasha Kates

Published: October 9, 2009

A monthly magazine has filed a lawsuit accusing Virginia Department of Corrections officials of violating the First and Fourteenth amendments by censoring magazines and books sent to Virginia’s prisoners.

Prison Legal News Inc. filed suit Thursday in Charlottesville’s federal court. The 7,000-circulation publication, which reports on prison issues, is seeking policy changes, unspecified damages and attorney’s fees.

Defendants named included Gene M. Williams, the corrections agency’s director; seven members of the Publications Review Committee; and wardens and operations officers at the Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women and at the Coffeewood Correctional Center in Culpeper County.

An agency spokesman directed comment to state Attorney General’s Office spokesman David Clementson, who said his office doesn’t comment on pending litigation.

The suit references a Fluvanna inmate who was told she couldn’t get her subscription because a third party paid for it, which is not allowed. A Coffeewood inmate also received notice that he couldn’t have two of the magazines, but he was not told what material was objectionable.

Charlottesville-based lawyer Jeffrey E. Fogel said inmates can appeal the decisions, but it’s hard to do without knowing why the material was censored. The magazine received a letter describing some objectionable items, which included articles about a sexual abuse lawsuit against a prison and about an inmate who hid marijuana and tobacco in his stomach rolls.

"It seems they want nothing except marginalized milk and Wonder bread in the form of reading materials for prisoners," Fogel said. "It’s treating these prisoners like they’re children."

According to the lawsuit, part of the Department of Corrections’ operating procedure lists bans incoming publications with "material whose content could be detrimental to the security, good order, discipline of the facility or offender rehabilitative efforts or the safety or health of offenders, staff or others."

Fogel said the state agency hasn’t said why the magazine is in violation of that rule. Of the 24 issues in a two-year span, Fogel said he knows of 14 that were banned.

The suit specifically accuses the department officials of lack of timely and adequate notification of censorship to publishers, along with arbitrary and capricious decisions, censorship of constitutionally protected speech and refusal to allow gift subscriptions and information packets.

Prison reading material was the center of another recent controversy. The state Department of Corrections canceled the locally based Books Behind Bars program in September after authorities found contraband items, such as paper clips, in books. The program was reinstated after The Rutherford Institute, an area civil liberties group, wrote a letter to the agency threatening litigation.

John W. Whitehead, president and founder of the institute, said he thinks someone either needs to sue the state agency or threaten to do before it will make any changes.

"The law is prisoners have a fundamental right to receive information," Whitehead said. "Nonprofit groups have a right to send it. The prisons have a right to inspect materials and look for threats, but it has to be a compelling threat. It can’t be, 'I don’t like the way he talked about marijuana.'"



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