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Louisiana Prisoner Denied Religious Materials Under “Approved Vendor” Policy Settles Suit for $21, 786.13 in Damages and Fees

Louisiana Prisoner Denied Religious Materials Under "Approved Vendor" Policy Settles Suit for $21, 786.13 in Damages and Fees

The State of Louisiana has settled with a prisoner who was denied religious materials while imprisoned in the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. Under the agreement, which was concluded on February 21, 2007, the state will pay Norman Sanders nearly $22,000 and add Mormon bookstores to its approved vendors list.

Sanders is a lifelong member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Until December 2003, when prison officials instituted a specific list of "approved vendors" from which prisoners could purchase various items, Sanders had been purchasing and receiving Mormon religious texts unimpeded. After that date, however, Sanders was unable to order religious writings because only one Mormon bookstore was on the vendors list and that vendor provided only scriptures, not books or other religious writings.

In December 2006 the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Louisiana sued prison officials in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Louisiana on Sanders' behalf. The suit, filed pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), 42 U.S.C. § 2000, alleged that prison officials violated Sanders' First and Fourteenth Amendment rights by denying him religious materials and treating the Mormon religion differently than other religions.

Joe Cook, Executive Director of the ACLU of Louisiana and Katie Schwartzmann, the organization's staff attorney, contended that prison officials had no legitimate reason for restricting Sanders? access to the religious materials he sought to order.

"Angola officials may not control the private practice of religion unless it clearly poses a safety or security risk, which did not exist in this case," Schwartzmann said. "It is unfortunate that we even had to bring this lawsuit. Mr. Sanders tried for years to get Angola officials to comply with the Constitution. We are pleased that prison officials made the right decision and finally decided to settle this case."

Out of the total $21,786.13 settlement Sanders will receive $10,950 in damages. The rest will be used to pay attorney fees and costs. Also pursuant to the settlement prison officials at Angola will add Brigham Young University Bookstore, the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, and Desert Books Direct to its vendors list. See: Sanders v. State of Louisiana, USDC MD LA, Case No. 06-536-RET-DLD.

Books distributed by Prison Legal News had also been censored at the Louisiana State Penitentiary under this "approved vendor" policy. After PLN sent a demand letter as a prelude to seeking judicial review, the Louisiana Department of Public Safety added PLN to its list of Approved Vendors.

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Related legal case

Sanders v. State of Louisiana