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PLN Settles Censorship Suit Against Virginia DOC for $125,250

Prison Legal News announced on September 23, 2010 that it had settled a censorship lawsuit against the Virginia Department of Corrections (VDOC) for $125,250 in damages, attorney fees and costs.

In October 2009, PLN filed suit against Gene M. Johnson, director of Virginia’s prison system, and other VDOC officials for violating its First Amendment rights by censoring PLN’s monthly publication in state prisons. The VDOC had claimed that PLN was “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 included “information geared toward a negative perception of law enforcement.” [See: PLN, Nov. 2009, p.32].

“There are too many instances of exaggerated claims of security and order by prison officials,” noted PLN attorney Steven D. Rosenfield. “The managers of these prisons would be better off concentrating on contraband, low-paying salaries of staff and too many Mickey Mouse rules.”

The VDOC failed to notify PLN when its publications were rejected, and prison officials did not let prisoners’ family members or friends buy books or magazine subscriptions on their behalf. Further, prisoners had to obtain permission before they were allowed to order or subscribe to publications. PLN argued in its federal complaint that such policies and practices infringed on its First Amendment right to communicate with and distribute reading material to Virginia prisoners, and prevented PLN from challenging censorship decisions.

To settle PLN’s suit, the VDOC agreed to pay $40,000 in damages plus $83,370 for PLN’s attorney fees and $1,880 in litigation costs, for a total of $125,250. The VDOC further agreed to make several policy changes, including to: 1) Remove PLN from its Disapproved Publications list; 2) Notify VDOC wardens that “PLN does not appear to be a publication that contains material that violates agency publication policy”; 3) Ensure that PLN will receive prompt notice of any future censorship decisions; 4) Allow family and friends of Virginia prisoners to purchase books and publications for them from approved vendors, including PLN; and 5) Allow PLN to correspond with prisoners by sending them subscription brochures, information packets, etc.

The VDOC will post notices of the settlement terms “on existing bulletin boards of each state correctional facility for a period of one year,” the settlement will remain in effect for three years, and the district court retains jurisdiction to enforce the agreement if needed.

“We are pleased that Virginia prison officials chose to respect the First Amendment rights of publishers that provide reading material to prisoners rather than litigate this censorship case,” said PLN editor Paul Wright. “However, it would have been better for PLN, prisoners, their family members and Virginia taxpayers if such censorship had not occurred in the first place, which would have made our lawsuit unnecessary.”

“The Virginia Department of Corrections has a serious problem with censorship and is regularly violating the First Amendment rights of both prisoners and publishers. This agreement is a major victory for them and for the First Amendment,” added PLN attorney Jeffrey Fogel.

PLN appreciates the patience of its subscribers in Virginia prisons whose subscriptions were censored prior to the resolution of this lawsuit. PLN was represented by Charlottesville attorneys Jeffrey E. Fogel and Steven D. Rosenfield, and by former PLN General Counsel Dan Manville and Adam Cook. See: Prison Legal News v. Johnson, U.S.D.C. (W.D. Virginia), Case No. 3:09-cv-00068.

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Related legal case

Prison Legal News v. Johnson