As if allegations of possible mistreatment of prison inmates and a high death rate in San Diego County's five prison facilities wasn't enough, now the sheriff's department must answer accusations of censorship and of violating the First Amendment rights of inmates.
On October 9, Washington DC–based nonprofit Human Rights Defense Center filed a lawsuit against the County of San Diego, Sheriff William Gore and his assistant sheriff, and Will Brown, the commander for the Detention Services Bureau, for refusing to distribute to prisoners monthly journals covering the legal system’s current court cases.
The sheriff's department is accused of sending literature and correspondence from editors to inmates back to the nonprofit with a written statement that prisoners are only allowed to receive postcards.
Since 2012, alleges the complaint, there have been 61 instances of censorship at facilities such as Las Colinas, George F. Bailey, and San Diego Central Jail. It was in September 2012 that the San Diego Sheriff's Department adopted their policy of prohibiting inmates from receiving personal letters.
"The only acceptable form of incoming personal public correspondence will be postcards and electronic mail messages," reads San Diego County policy. "Personal letters will no longer be accepted. Any incoming personal letters will be returned to sender."
Withholding information such as journals violates the First Amendment, claims the Human Defense Center.
"Defendants have censored [Prison Legal News] monthly journal, books, informational brochure packets, subscription renewal letters, and court rulings mailed to inmates held in custody at San Diego County jails, by refusing to deliver said items to the prisoners and, in some instances, by returning items to [Prison Legal News] offices via the 'Return To Sender' service of the United States Postal Service."
Also, personal letters from the publication's editor to at least 13 inmates — possibly as many as 39 — were not handed out, as well as a guidebook to habeas corpus laws and litigation.
"Defendants’ conduct prohibiting [Prison Legal News] from mailing its publications, informational brochure packets, Internet-based printouts of case law and letters to inmates confined at the San Diego County jails violates the First Amendment. Defendants’ policies, practices and customs censor these expressive activities and have a chilling effect on [Prison Legal News] future speech and expression directed toward inmates confined there."
The nonprofit is asking the court to require county prison officials make an official declaration stating that the policy is unconstitutional as well as changing the policy.