PLN settles censorship suit against Kenosha County, WI
Policy change lets inmates receive magazines, books in mail
Magazines, books and other publications now can be sent directly to inmates in Kenosha County’s detention facilities after the county agreed to change its policy following a federal lawsuit.
Prison Legal News sued the county last summer, claiming the county’s policy prohibiting delivery of periodicals, magazines, books and other publications violated rights granted by the First Amendment. Prison Legal News publishes and distributes a journal of corrections news and analysis, as well as books about the criminal justice system.
The company mailed copies of its publication and some soft-cover books to 29 specific prisoners in the Kenosha County Jail, and they were rejected and returned with stamps reading “refused” and “return to sender,” along with a white sticker with a checked box indicating “no books/magazines,” according to the complaint filed in federal district court.
The county and Prison Legal News reached a settlement, part of which required the Sheriff’s Department to change its policy on publications that can be sent to inmates. According to the settlement, the county continues to “dispute and deny liability” but agreed to settle to “avoid the expense, delay, uncertainty, and burden of litigation.”
The county’s attorney, Ryan Braithwaite, said the new policy allowing publications to be sent to inmates has been in place since the end of January. The old policy was put in place in 1985, he said.
“There weren’t really any issues, so nothing was brought to (the county’s) attention until the lawsuit was brought,” he said. “We immediately looked at it, realized it was out of date and updated it to allow magazines and books with some restrictions on content.”
Braithwaite said nobody knew why the old policy was put in place, but he said there was “a concern about staples that was mentioned.” The new policy includes content restrictions for things like information that would pose a threat to the safety or welfare of the institution or if there was sexual or lewd content.
Prison Legal News attorney Jon Loevy commended the county “for fixing an unconstitutional policy and bringing it into compliance.”
“To their credit, rather than spending taxpayer money fighting a losing battle, they decided to make the policy compliant with the First Amendment,” he said. “Prisoners have rights, too. Nobody wants to live in a society where even incarcerated people are censored or denied access to materials about what’s going on in the world.”
That publication is now being delivered to inmates, Loevy said.
Another part of the settlement was monetary. The county agreed to pay $116,500 to Prison Legal News.
Braithwaite called that “the ransom that Prison Legal News demanded.” Federal law allows plaintiffs to recover attorney’s fees, and Loevy said that’s what the payment covered.
Terms of the settlement
* The county will pay Prison Legal News $116,500n Prison Legal News’ journal and its other books and publications will be delivered to inmates and detainees at the jail.n The county will no longer have any “blanket bans” on books, magazines, newspapers or other publications sent to inmates or detainees.n If publications, correspondence or documents are rejected, senders and recipients shall receive written notice and information about how to appeal the decision.n The county must also post the new policy in the jail and detention facility, include it in the inmate handbook and post it online. However, the policy is not yet available on the jail website.