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Settlement Reverses Virginia DOC’s Ban on Jailhouse Lawyers Handbook

A settlement agreement between the Virginia Department of Corrections (VDOC) and two civil rights organizations that publish the Jailhouse Lawyer’s Handbook (JLH) overturned the VDOC’s ban on JLH and requires that five copies of that publication be placed in each of the state’s prison libraries. The settlement also provides for monetary damages and attorney fees totaling almost $13,000.

The lawsuit arose after a prisoner at the Coffeewood Correctional Center obtained approval to receive a copy of JLH, but the book was disapproved upon its arrival. The VDOC’s Publication Review Committee (PRC) disapproved the “entire publication” because it allegedly contained “[m]aterial whose content could be detrimental to the security, good order, discipline of the facility, or offender rehabilitative efforts or the safety or health of offenders, staff, or others.”

The JLH is jointly published by the National Lawyers Guild (NLG) and the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR). Neither were provided with notice that the JLH had been disapproved or why it met the criteria for being censored.

Following the November 10, 2009 decision by the PRC to ban JLH in VDOC facilities, the NLG and CCR sued for violation of their First Amendment rights. A settlement agreement was reached in February 2011.

As a result of the settlement, JLH will not be considered a disapproved publication and VDOC staff will be informed that JLH is approved. Any future decision to ban JLH will be directly determined by the Office of the Deputy Director, who will promptly notify the NLG and CCR of the specific reasons for disapproval.

In addition to placing five copies of JLH in each VDOC prison library at the NLG and CCR’s expense, prisoners in housing units without library access will be allowed to request a copy of the book subject to the usual prison rules applicable to obtaining library materials. Additionally, the VDOC “will designate the NLG and CCR as legitimate sources from whom publications may be purchased or received, including gift publications, without prior approval, review, or determination of any kind by VDOC, its agents or employees.”
The settlement further requires the VDOC to pay the NLG and CCR $2,500 in damages and $10,230 in attorney fees and costs. “I’m happy with the result, but I don’t think it’s anything more than what we were entitled to expect for the placement of the copies in the law libraries of the institutions,” said Jeffrey E. Fogel, a Charlottesville attorney who represented the NLG. “It was probably the most outrageous act of censorship in a prison in [the] United States to say you can’t learn about your constitutional rights.” See: National Lawyers Guild v. Johnson, U.S.D.C. (W.D. Vir.), Case No. 3:10-cv-00040-NKM-BWC.

Previously, the VDOC had settled separate, unrelated censorship lawsuits involving Prison Legal News and the Nation of Islam’s publication, The Final Call. [See: PLN, June 2011, p.46; Nov. 2010, p.46].

Additional source: Daily Progress

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Related legal case

National Lawyers Guild v. Johnson