PLN settles censorship suit against Livingston County, MI jail
Lawsuit over jail-mail settled; sheriff calls it a 'win'
Livingston County’s sheriff expressed frustration Thursday with a $295,000 settlement – essentially attorney fees for the other side – of a federal lawsuit over the distribution of a prison-based publication.
Still, Sheriff Michael Murphy called the settlement with Prison Legal News, a monthly magazine geared toward inmates, “a win.”
“I’m glad it’s behind us. I’m frustrated that there was such a large settlement, but had it went to trial and had we lost, we would have ended up paying attorney fees anyway,” said Murphy, who was undersheriff when the lawsuit was filed in 2011. “To get out from underneath it for attorney fees and no punitive damages, I think it’s a win.”
Alex Friedmann, managing editor of Prison Legal News, said it is "a win not only for our organization, but also for the First Amendment."
The Florida-based magazine, which is a project of the Human Rights Defense Center, filed the lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Detroit in 2011 after learning its publication or correspondence, which it marked as coming from an attorney, was not being delivered to county inmates.
The county jail’s policy had been to limit inmate mail to postcards only. Legal mail was delivered only if it came from an attorney who had an attorney-client relationship with the inmate. The latter policy has since been changed to allow the delivery of properly labeled legal mail to inmates regardless of whether an attorney has an attorney-client relationship with the inmate.
Under the settlement with Prison Legal News, the jail must accept up to 30 subscriptions per month of the publication addressed to specific inmates. The jail also must deliver up to 30 books per month addressed to specific inmates.
Murphy expects most of the Prison Legal News mailings likely will still land in the recycling bin because the inmate listed on the mailing will no longer reside in the county jail.
Although defendants can be sentenced to up to a year in the county jail, the average length of stay is 14 days.
“They can get our inmate roster … but I can assure you what will happen is, if they pick 30 names, we end up delivering maybe one,” Murphy said. “The rest will be recycled because the inmates are not here.”
The sheriff said no inmate – prior to the lawsuit or after it was filed – has requested a subscription to Prison Legal News.
Murphy said the impetus for the lawsuit was clear from the beginning.
“It was never about the publication. It was always about the money,” he said. “When they filed the lawsuit, they all but told us it was because of the (county’s) settlement history. They purposely go around looking for jurisdictions with a settlement policy.”
Friedmann disagreed, saying the organization "resort to courts" when it has to, and he defined that as "when corrections officials enforce unconstitutional policies that violate our First Amendment rights as a publisher and the rights of prisoners to receive our publication, books and other reading materials."
"If prisons or jails do not have unconstitutional mail policies, then we would have nothing to sue over - it's as simple as that," said Friedmann, who also serves as the associate director for the Human Rights Defense Center.
Prison Legal News has filed lawsuits in at least two dozen states alleging violations of the First Amendment for not delivering its publications. In Michigan, there is a pending lawsuit against Macomb County that is set for a status conference on July 17.
In 2005, Livingston County spent about $300,000 in attorney fees and settlements, according to statistics from the county clerk’s office. That was during a time the Sheriff’s Office was the subject of many lawsuits and the mindset arguably appeared to be that it was more cost effective to settle the lawsuit rather than fight it.
Since about 2010, Murphy said, the county has changed its stance and will now fight lawsuits.
“If we’re right,” he said, “we’re going to the mat and, ultimately, that paid off. As of today, the Sheriff’s Office is lawsuit free. There are no pending lawsuits out there."
According to information from the county, there were 35 pending lawsuits - excluding the Prison Legal News suit - between 2010 and 2016. Of those, nine ended with losses totaling more than $1 million to the county while the remaining cases closed without payment being made.
“It sets the tone for everyone else out there that thinks the Sheriff’s Office is an easy mark – you better pack a lunch,” Murphy said.
Reporter's note: This story was updated to add comment from Prison Legal News representative, which was not immediately available when the story first published.