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Publications Lawsuit Settled in Alabama

On February 28, 1998, U.S. district judge U.W. Clemon approved the final settlement in a lawsuit challenging a year of blanket censorship at Donaldson Correctional Facility (DCF), Alabama's highest security prison.

In March, 1997, DCF warden Steve Dees implemented a policy that banned all periodicals not included on a list of 16 approved publications. The list of approved publications included Playboy, Reader's Digest, Car and Driver, Newsweek, Wrestling World, Health and Fitness , etc. Mail censors used the policy to exclude a vast array of other publications, namely, everything not on the approved list. This included: Prison Legal News, The Nation, Harpers, Inside Chess, Time, U.S. News and World Report, Outdoor Life , etc. Conspicuously absent from the list of approved publications were periodicals covering non centrist politics, science, literature, and other topics not considered standard fare in rural Alabama. The policy also prohibited catalogs of any kind and prohibited newspapers from places other than the prisoners' "home towns." Warden Dees later expanded the policy to ban all books from the prison.

In May, 1997, the Southern Poverty Law Center filed suit on behalf DCF prisoners. Plaintiffs sought injunctive relief requiring the Alabama DOC to abandon the DCF policy and instead comply with DOC Administrative Regulation (AR) 303, which requires individual screening of all publications and generally conforms to the publications policy used in the federal prison system. Specifically, plaintiffs asked to be allowed to receive any book, magazine or newspaper that did not pose a threat to prison security and to receive book catalogs.

Under the terms of the settlement, the AL DOC agreed to withdraw the challenged DCF policy in its entirety and follow AL DOC AR 303, which sets forth the publications policy for the entire prison system. Under AR 303 Alabama prisoners can receive any publication not reasonably expected to threaten, undermine or damage prison security, order or rehabilitation goals. An individualized inspection of each issue of a publication by the warden or his designee is required before a publication is censored. "The defendant agreed that no publication will be excluded based on a list of permitted publications."

The settlement further defined the term "publisher," as used in AR 303, to include "reputable book, magazine, newspaper and book catalog publishers" and five different book distributors. It provides that the list will be updated periodically.

The plaintiffs waived their right to seek attorney fees and costs in the lawsuit. The parties agreed to have the suit certified as a class action suit for settlement purposes. The plaintiffs' lawsuit was dismissed without prejudice. "In the event that the defendant breaches this stipulation, the plaintiffs may reinstate their suit and/or enforce the stipulation as a contract between the parties in state court." This resolved the problem of enforcing settlements in federal court under the Prison Litigation Reform Act. The settlement is unpublished. The case is: Johnson v. Mitchem , Case No. 97-C-1301-S. US DC, ND AL.

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Related legal case

Johnson v. Mitchem