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PLN files censorship suit against Shawnee County, KS jail

Topeka Capital-Journal, Jan. 1, 2011.
PLN files censorship suit against Shawnee County, KS jail - Topeka Capital-Journal 2011

ACLU files suit on ShCo Jail mail

Posted: September 6, 2011 - 5:30pm

By Tim Carpenter

Neither the American Civil Liberties Union nor their Vermont magazine client contacted Shawnee County officials prior to filing a federal lawsuit challenging a policy blocking inmates at the jail in Topeka from receiving books and other publications by mail.

On Tuesday, Shawnee County counselor Rich Eckert said documents pertaining to the litigation demanding compensatory and punitive damages arrived despite lack of effort by ACLU of Kansas and Western Missouri and publishers of Prison Legal News in Brattleboro, Vt., to obtain permission from the Shawnee County Commission to distribute the monthly magazine.

"I don't have a problem with their publication in the jail," Eckert said.

Rules posted on the Shawnee County Jail's website declare "no packages, newspapers, magazines, books or other personal property is to be mailed to the facility."

Eckert said the jail's administrator wasn't the final authority on policy regarding distribution of printed books, magazines and other materials. He said the elected three-member county commission had authority to amend the policy to comply with legal objections.

"The Board of County Commissioners was never notified," he said.

ACLU attorney Doug Bonney confirmed no overture was made to county commissioners prior to asserting the policy to be in conflict with the First and 14th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.

"It's hard to rationalize a total ban," Bonney said. "We don't think there is a purpose."

The Shawnee County Jail policy resulted in no distribution to inmates of Prison Legal News, subscription renewal letters, informational brochures and soft-cover books, such as "Protecting Your Health and Safety." The ban had inhibited movement of published material since at least November, the lawsuit says.

Bonney said the lawsuit filed last week in U.S. District Court in Topeka named as defendants the county commission, as well as Richard Kline, director of the county's corrections department.

This isn't novel legal territory for Prison Legal News, which has been involved in dozens of lawsuits since 1999. The publication prevailed in similar censorship cases elsewhere in the country.

Bonney said Prison Legal News has a "good track record" of challenging corrections department policy on access.

Paul Wright, editor of Prison Legal News, said restrictions applied at the Shawnee County Jail amounted to "egregious violation" of constitutional rights.

"One would think that law enforcement officials would be in the business of upholding the Constitution, not violating it on a daily basis by enforcing such ill-conceived policies," Wright said.

Bonney said the ACLU was exploring legal implications of policies increasingly popular in Kansas jails to require correspondence to inmates be written on postcards.

"We are looking at those," he said. "That may be the next shoe to drop."



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