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North Carolina Prison Censorship Class Action Suit Settled

A settlement has been reached in a class action lawsuit that challenged the way the North Carolina Department of Corrections (NCDOC) administers its policies related to the receipt of books and magazines by prisoners.

The suit sought to enforce the First Amendment rights of NCDOC prisoners to receive reading materials. The complaint claimed that NCDOC employees frequently withheld publications sent to prisoners and failed to provide them with notice of such censorship. When notice was given, it did not include a full explanation as to why the publication was withheld. Either way, this prevented prisoners from exercising their appeal rights.

The representative class plaintiff, Joseph Urbaniak, Jr., pursued his administrative remedies at the Harnett Correctional Institution after prison officials denied him several publications, including Out and The Advocate magazines. Those publications contain articles on news, fashion, health, travel and music that focus on the gay, bisexual, lesbian and transgender community. Urbaniak was also denied the novels American Desert and Avoidance.

After his administrative remedies were rejected, Urbaniak filed a civil rights complaint. The federal district court certified the case as a class action on May 30, 2008, with the class consisting of all present and future NCDOC prisoners who seek to receive publications through the mail.

The case settled in March 2010. Under the terms of the settlement, the NCDOC must uniformly follow its policies that require, among other things, providing prisoners with an explanation for why publications are censored, plus “reference to specific rules and ... time limits for appeals.” Further, NCDOC employees “involved in reviewing inmate publications [will] be trained with a video at least once a year so that the procedure in different prisons is consistent.” The NCDOC also agreed to pay $350 to reimburse Urbaniak for the lawsuit’s filing fee.

The final judgment in the case was entered on August 27, 2010. The prisoner class members were represented by attorney J. Phillip Griffin, Jr. of North Carolina Prisoner Legal Services, Inc. See: Urbaniak v. Stanley, U.S.D.C. (E.D. NC), Case No. 5:06-ct-03135-FL.

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Related legal case

Urbaniak v. Stanley