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PLN Sues Jails in Louisiana, Washington State Over No-Publication Policies

On September 9, 2011, Prison Legal News filed separate lawsuits against the Orleans Parish jail in New Orleans, Louisiana and the Chelan County jail in Washington State over mail policy-related issues.

PLN’s suit against Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman, who oversees the Orleans Parish Prison (OPP) and its related correctional facilities, including the House of Detention, Old Parish Prison, Templeman V and Conchetta, alleges violations of the First and Fourteenth Amendments.

Beginning on September 15, 2010, PLN sent its monthly publication and copies of a book titled Protecting Your Health and Safety to 35 prisoners at OPP. However, pursuant to the jail’s mail policy, the publications sent by PLN were censored and rejected. The Sheriff’s website states that “No books, magazines, newspapers or periodicals of any kind” can be mailed to prisoners.

The mail policy specifies that books sent from publishers are to be reviewed by each facility warden to determine whether they are “acceptable.” However, the policy provides no standards or criteria for censoring and excluding books, and books sent from distributors such as PLN (as opposed to publishers) are disallowed. Jail officials “are not making individualized determinations about the content of each publication before rejecting them in violation of clearly established First Amendment law,” PLN claims.

According to PLN’s lawsuit, the only books available for prisoners to purchase through the OPP commissary are the Bible, the Koran, a dictionary and ten mass market popular fiction novels which are described as “Best Seller 1,” “Best Seller 2,” etc. Books related to criminal justice, self-help, and civil and criminal legal topics, such as those offered by PLN, are excluded from the commissary list.

“Sheriff Gusman has plenty of problems on his plate right now,” said PLN editor Paul Wright. “The jail continues to be under investigation for serious civil rights violations documented by the U.S. Department of Justice in a report released on September 11, 2009. The last thing the Sheriff should be doing is enforcing a policy that results in unconstitutional censorship in violation of the First Amendment, but that is exactly what’s happening.”

PLN is seeking a declaration that the jail’s mail policy violates its rights under the First and Fourteenth Amendments, as well as injunctive relief, compensatory and punitive damages, attorney fees and costs. “We take our Constitutional rights seriously,” said Wright.

PLN is represented by New Orleans attorneys Mary Howell, Elizabeth Cumming and John Adcock, and Human Rights Defense Center chief counsel Lance Weber. The case is Prison Legal News v. Gusman, U.S.D.C. (E.D. La.), Case No. 11-cv-02277.

PLN’s lawsuit against Washington’s Chelan County Regional Justice Center (RJC) and Sheriff Brian Burnett challenges a similar publications ban. According to PLN’s complaint, the defendants “have adopted and implemented written mail policies and practices that unconstitutionally prohibit delivery to prisoners of periodicals or magazines, books, and other correspondence including but not limited to book catalogs, informational subscription brochures, and book offers.”

Since December 2010, PLN mailed its monthly publication, books, book catalogs and informational brochures and subscription forms to numerous individual RJC prisoners.
All of the publications sent from PLN were censored by jail staff pursuant to the facility’s mail policy, and PLN did not receive “due process notice or an opportunity to appeal the censorship decisions.”

According to the RJC’s mail policy, “no subscriptions to any periodical or magazine will be allowed,” and paperback books are banned. Prisoners at the facility can receive only one local newspaper. PLN argues that the jail’s blanket ban on books, magazines and other reading material violates its rights under the First Amendment to send publications to RJC prisoners. Further, the lack of notice of censorship by jail staff violates PLN’s due process rights under the Fourteenth Amendment.

PLN is seeking declaratory and injunctive relief plus nominal, compensatory and punitive damages and costs, including attorney’s fees. PLN is represented by Jesse Wing and Katherine Chamberlain with the Seattle law firm of MacDonald Hoague & Bayless, and Human Rights Defense Center chief counsel Lance Weber. See: Prison Legal News v. Chelan County, U.S.D.C. (E.D. Wash.), Case No. 11-cv-00337-EFS.

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Related legal cases

Prison Legal News v. Gusman

Prison Legal News v. Chelan County