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Indiana Jail Ban on Publications Struck Down

In an unpublished ruling, on May 13, 1998, a federal district court in Indiana held that a county jail's policy prohibiting prisoners from receiving publications from any source outside the jail was unconstitutional. In 1997 the St. Joseph county jail in Indiana enacted a policy prohibiting its prisoners from receiving any and all publications from publishers or vendors. The stated reason for this policy was a concern about fire hazards and prisoners using paper to conceal their cell interiors. The policy was supposedly only temporary until a new jail was built or the current jail's population significantly diminished. The only source of reading materials for the jail prisoners was two items from the jail's library cart. The cart did not include newspapers.

The Indiana Civil Liberties Union filed suit on behalf of the jail prisoners claiming the publications ban violated the First amendment rights of the jail's prisoners. The case was certified as a class action and the court granted summary judgment to the plaintiffs and enjoined enforcement of the publications ban, holding it was unconstitutional.

The court held that television is an inadequate substitute for publications, especially publications which espouse religious or political views outside the mainstream. The court held that the policy's stated purpose of preventing fires and obstructed views into cells was not met by the publications ban because there was no evidence that the publications provided by the Jail did not burn or conceal just as well as those sent by publishers. "The plaintiff class is entitled to at least an injunction against the Sheriff in his official capacity, precluding the continued enforcement of the prohibition against any materials received directly from publishers."

The court held the sheriff was entitled to qualified immunity from money damages because he claimed the ban on reading material was only "temporary" due to severe overcrowding. Thus, no damages were awarded.

The court also held that in Indiana county sheriffs act as state, not county, employees with regards to jail administration. Therefore, federal courts cannot order sheriffs, as state employees, to comply with state law. The court dismissed the plaintiffs' state law claims on that basis.

Neither party appealed the court's final ruling striking down the ban on reading material from publishers and granting the defendants qualified immunity from damages and dismissing the state law claims. This was a final ruling on the merits. Readers should note it is unpublished. See: Moss v. Speybroeck , US DC, ND IN, Southbend Division, Case Number 3:97-CV-378RM.

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Related legal case

Moss v. Speybroeck