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PLN Sues Virginia DOC Over Censorship, Due Process Violations

On October 8, 2009, Prison Legal News filed suit in U.S. District Court against Virginia Department of Corrections (VDOC) Director Gene M. Johnson and other prison officials, claiming that the VDOC had violated PLN’s rights under the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution by censoring publications sent to Virginia prisoners.

According to PLN’s complaint, the VDOC has repeatedly censored PLN’s monthly publication, claiming it is “detrimental to the security, good order, discipline of the facility, or offender rehabilitative efforts or the safety or health of offenders, staff or others,” or because it “presents information geared toward a negative perception of law enforcement.”

However, VDOC officials have provided no explanation as to why PLN’s coverage of criminal justice issues is considered detrimental to security or rehabilitation, or casts law enforcement in a negative light. “The news is what it is,” said PLN editor Paul Wright. “We don’t make it up. We’re not an inflammatory publication.”

The VDOC’s censorship policy does not provide for timely and adequate notice that allows publishers, including PLN, to challenge such censorship. Further, the VDOC does not permit prisoners’ families or friends to purchase books or magazine subscriptions for prisoners. PLN’s lawsuit notes that Virginia prisoners, “many of whom are indigent, may not receive purchases on their behalf by family members, friends, or charitable organizations.” PLN has successfully challenged such gift-ban subscriptions in four other states.

Further, VDOC prisoners must obtain permission from prison officials before ordering, subscribing to or receiving publications. However, the VDOC has prohibited prisoners from receiving correspondence from PLN that contains information about subscriptions, renewals and book sales. PLN contends that these policies “serve no neutral, legitimate, penological purpose,” and therefore infringe upon its rights.

“Prisoners are adults and should not be treated as children by the VDOC by requiring approval by prison officials be-fore prisoners can order legal and self-help materials,” stated Human Rights Defense Center General Counsel Dan Man-ville.

“Although prisoners lose many of their constitutional rights when they are incarcerated, the First Amendment does not end at the prison door,” noted Jeffrey Fogel, one of the attorneys who represents PLN. “The Virginia Department of Corrections has censored numerous issues of Prison Legal News on the flimsiest of grounds. Moreover, the Department’s procedures do not comply with the law, which requires a meaningful opportunity for a publisher to challenge censorship decisions.”

“We have made good faith efforts to communicate with the VDOC to resolve these problems,” added Paul Wright, “but those efforts have been unsuccessful. PLN has a well-established right under the First Amendment to send our magazine and books to prisoners, and we have filed suit to enforce that right.”

PLN’s lawsuit against the VDOC was reported by the Associated Press, Richmond Times-Dispatch and various other publications. Virginia’s Office of the Attorney General declined to comment.

PLN is seeking declaratory and injunctive relief as well as monetary damages, and is represented by attorneys Jeffrey E. Fogel and Steven D. Rosenfield of Charlottesville, and by HRDC General Counsel Dan E. Manville. See: Prison Legal News v. Johnson, U.S.D.C. (W.D. Vir.), Case No. 3:09-cv-00068.

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Related legal case

Prison Legal News v. Johnson

Documents pertaining to this case may be viewed by clicking on the "PLN In Action" link (map) on the homepage and then clicking on the appropriate state.