Censorship of HRDC publications leads to suit against NM jail
Santa Fe County jail sued over prohibition of outside books
- By Phaedra Haywood | The New Mexican
Santa Fe County is being sued over its policy prohibiting jail inmates from obtaining books from the outside world.
In a complaint filed in U.S. District Court earlier this week, the Human Rights Defense Center contends Prison Legal News: Dedicated to Protecting Human Rights — a monthly magazine that reports on criminal justice and prison- and jail-related litigation with an emphasis on prisoners’ rights — is getting through jail censors just fine.
But books it ships to the Santa Fe County Detention Center are marked “return to sender” because the county’s policy forbids prisoners from receiving any books from outside the facility.
“The facility does not allow inmates to purchase books,” according to a county policy updated in 2016. “The facility is equipped with a library. There is a process for checking out books.”
In contrast, the state prison system bans hardcover books but allows softcover books.
The Defense Center contends the county’s wholesale prohibition of books from the outside violates inmates’ civil rights by robbing them of the opportunity to challenge each instance of censorship individually, and violates the free speech rights of the nonprofit because the policy hinders its mission “to educate prisoners and the public about the destructive nature of racism, sexism and the economic and social costs of prisons to society.”
The lawsuit says jail officials have prevented inmates from receiving 85 books from the Defense Center since October 2017.
Rejected titles include: The Habeas Citebook: Ineffective Assistance of Counsel; Protecting Your Health and Safety and Prisoner’s Guerrilla Handbook: A Guide to Correspondence Programs in the United States and Canada.
Santa Fe County Detention Center Warden Derek Williams said Friday he hadn’t had time to read the lawsuit and he couldn’t comment on the specifics.
He said the jail doesn’t allow hardcover books for safety reasons, including the possibility they can be used to smuggle contraband. Williams added it limits the amount of printed materials inmates can keep in cells to reduce fire hazards and comply with overcrowding guidelines.
The jail has a list of 40 publications federal inmates housed at the facility are allowed to receive, including: Backpacking, Business Week, Car & Driver, Entrepreneur, Ladies Home Journal, National Geographic, Newsweek, Popular Science, Time Magazine, Men’s Health, Women’s Health, Men’s Fitness, Muscle & Fitness, ESPN Magazine, New Mexico Magazine, Southwest Indian, Southwest Art, US Weekly, People, O The Oprah Magazine, ABQ Live, and a number of automotive publications.
Federal inmates also can receive Sports Illustrated, according to the list, but “NO Swimsuit Issue.”
County inmates are not allowed any magazine subscriptions without requesting written permission from the warden or the deputy warden.
Williams said he looks at written requests for magazines subscriptions with an eye toward “what kind of material are they trying to obtain?” and “does it serve an educational value?”
He added he tries to make sure there is no “inappropriate content, like pornographic material or things that have inappropriate language or talk about children.”
The policy allows “local, national and religious” newspapers, but all newspapers shall be reviewed and “may be denied due to content.”
Prison Legal News filed a similar lawsuit against Bernalillo County in 2015.
In that case, court records show, Bernalillo County agreed as part of a settlement to allow softcover books through the mail, and if a book is stopped by censors, to provide both the sender and the receiver with notice stating the reason the book was rejected. The county also agreed to pay Prison Legal News $235,000 to drop the lawsuit.
The Human Rights Defense Center reached a similar settlement in 2017 with Management and Training Corp., a private prison management company that operates the Otero County Prison Facility in Southern New Mexico.
In that case, Management and Training Corp. agreed to change its policy regarding books and to pay the center $150,000 in damages and legal fees.
Human Rights Defense Center Director Paul Wright said the agency has found litigation is the most effective defense against what he said was unconstitutional censorship of inmate reading materials.
When the center has tried less formal tactics, Wright said, government officials frequently ignore them.
“Or they want to change their policy but only to let us in, not for all publishers, and that’s not acceptable to us,” Wright said. “We want to make sure we lock these changes in and we don’t want to deal with the same problems over and over and over again.”
Plus, he said, given the high turnover in county governments, the group might be able to work something out with one public official, only be be “back at square one” when a new administration takes over.
“We haven’t met any defendants who are willing to agree to a consent decree or other enforceable settlement,” he said.
Mara Taub, a volunteer with the local office of the Coalition for Prisoner’s Rights — which publishes a monthly newsletter covering issues of particular interest to prisoners — said getting the publication past censors has been an ongoing issue since the newsletter first published in 1972.
“It’s a national issue characterized by being arbitrary and inconsistent and constantly changing,” Taub said.