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Complaint Against Utah DOC for Non-Delivery of PLN Fails Because Defendants Only Negligent; Jail Publication Ban Illegal

by John E. Dannenberg

The Tenth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals has rejected several Utah-based civil rights complaints concerning the denial of reading material to prisoners, including issues of Prison Legal News. In a case involving the Salt Lake County Jail, suit was brought regarding the constitutionality of the jail’s mail regulations. An unrelated lawsuit, filed by PLN against the Utah Department of Corrections (UDOC), alleged deliberate non-delivery of PLN to several state prisoners. All of the suits were brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1983.

The initial federal complaint challenging the jail’s ban on magazines, books and catalogs was filed in 1994 (Farnsworth v. Salt Lake Metro Jail, captioned Jones v. Salt Lake County on appeal for plaintiff Paul B. Jones). In 1998, PLN v. Christensen and PLN v. Haun were filed due to non-delivery of PLN to UDOC subscribers. The appeal in PLN v. Christensen was dismissed by stipulation after the parties settled and the Tenth Circuit consolidated the remaining two cases.

The appellate court reviewed the jail and prison complaints separately, relying on the four-part test developed in Turner v. Safley, 482 U.S. 78 (1987). Turning first to the jail regulations in Jones, the Court recounted the plaintiffs’ argument that restricting newspapers, magazines, catalogs, technical publications, sexually explicit material and paperback books violated prisoners’ rights under the First and Fourteenth Amendments.

The jail’s magazine policy permitted prisoners to request subscriptions. Jones’ request was granted as to National Geographic, Newsweek, U.S. News, Reader’s Digest and New Era, but rejected as to Playboy, Easyrider, In the Wind, Tattoo, Penthouse, Soldier of Fortune, Guns-n-Ammo, Combat Auto and Mother Earth News. Moreover, magazines and books could only be received directly from vendors.

The policy included vague descriptors such as “consistent with jail security concerns,” “technical publications” and “sexually explicit material.” The Tenth Circuit used a broad brush to find that these undefined phrases were discretionary, consistent with the duty of jail officials to advance security concerns and prevent harassment of guards, and categorized them as “legitimate governmental objectives.”

Addressing paperback books, which originally could not be ordered from outside sources, the Court found the ban was permissible due to the jail’s in-house book cart delivery system, which allowed prisoners to select four books each time the librarian came around. Starting in 1996, a new rule permitted prisoners to order/receive paperback books that were automatically donated to the library via a “Public Donation Procedure,” which they could then read.

Jones argued that only “allowing some inmates to purchase some books some times” violated the First Amendment. The Tenth Circuit, however, found the policy was “rationally related to a legitimate governmental objective of prison security” because it restricted the introduction of contraband into the jail. As for catalogs, the Court of Appeals held the underlying district court ruling on that issue had not had the benefit of a Turner analysis, and remanded for reconsideration.

Finally, turning to PLN v. Haun, the appellate court focused on the UDOC complaints: Several subscribers had complained that various issues of PLN were never delivered. Some were marked “return to sender” while others simply disappeared. PLN was never notified of the non-delivery, a right it enjoys as a recognized media publication. In some cases, rejected issues of PLN were returned to PLN’s office with the admonitions “bulk rate mail not accepted at UT state prison” and “refused.” The mailroom supervisor claimed that these were simply inadvertent mistakes by prison mailroom staff.

While the Tenth Circuit agreed that PLN had a First Amendment right to deliver its publication to subscribers, it found the UDOC’s mail regulations in fact permitted approved bulk-rate subscriptions. PLN met the bulk-rate policy requirements and the UDOC claimed it “normally” delivered issues of PLN. Accordingly, the problems that PLN complained of were ascribed by the Court to “defendants’ negligence” as opposed to deliberate non-delivery due to the UDOC’s bulk-rate mail regulations.

The mere “negligence” that resulted in some non-deliveries failed to rise to a deliberate deprivation of constitutional rights, which is a threshold requirement under § 1983. The appellate court distinguished its prior ruling in Jacklovich v. Simmons, 392 F.3d 420 (10th Cir. 2004), another PLN case, wherein PLN had proved “deliberate rejection of the publication pursuant to policy.” Absent such proof in this case, the Tenth Circuit affirmed the district court’s grant of summary judgment to the defendants. The court ignored evidence in the record that PLN had contacted Utah prison officials of the ban and they defended the censorship of PLN. The case had a long, tortured procedural history having been filed in 1997 and languishing on the district court’s docket for years until the judge died and upon reassignment to another judge the case was promptly dismissed as failing to state a claim.
The prisoner plaintiffs and PLN were valiantly and well represented by Salt Lake City attorneys Brian Barnhard and James Harris of the Utah Legal Clinic. See: Jones v. Salt Lake County, 503 F.3d 1147 (10th Cir. 2007).

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Related legal case

Jones v. Salt Lake County