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PLN Settles Censorship Suit Against Sacramento County, California Jail

On July 17, 2012, Prison Legal News settled a lawsuit against Sacramento County, California and Sheriff Scott R. Jones for $300,000 plus policy changes in the county’s jail system.

The suit was filed in federal court in April 2011 after Sacramento County jail staff refused to deliver PLN’s monthly publication to prisoners and failed to notify PLN of that censorship in violation of the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.
The publications were rejected because they included small staples (used to hold the magazine together) and had mailing labels or stickers, which jail officials said posed a security risk.

The federal court granted PLN’s motion for a preliminary injunction on March 7, 2012, with U.S. District Court Judge John A. Mendez finding that the jail’s censorship of publications sent to prisoners was “an exaggerated response to any security concerns posed by PLN.”

The court further held that PLN had “demonstrated a likelihood of success on the merits of its First Amendment claim,” and that the defendants’ “policies and practices including refusing to deliver PLN publications and mailings to prisoners because they contained staples and/or a mailing label are not supported by a legitimate penological interest and do not leave open alternative means for PLN to exercise its First Amendment rights.”

A settlement agreement followed four months later.

In addition to the $300,000 payment to PLN for damages and attorney fees, the jail agreed to change its mail policies to allow prisoners to receive publications that have staples or mailing labels, provided that staff may remove the staples and labels. The jail also will supply “adequate written notice and an administrative review process” to PLN and other pub-lishers when any publication, correspondence or documents sent to prisoners are rejected. Finally, the county agreed to purchase four 5-year subscriptions to PLN for each jail library.

The settlement, in the form of a consent decree, specifies “that providing prisoners with access to reading materials promotes positive contact with the communities into which prisoners will eventually be released and is therefore consistent with the Defendants’ public safety mission.”

“We are pleased that Sacramento County has agreed to adopt lawful mail policies for its jails and stop engaging in unconstitutional censorship,” said PLN editor Paul Wright. “But we would have been more pleased had the jail not censored our publication to begin with, which necessitated our filing a lawsuit to protect our First Amendment rights.”

“There has been an unfortunate trend recently for local jails to adopt all kinds of restrictions on reading materials,” added Ernest Galvan, one of the attorneys who represented PLN. “Reading materials are not a threat to safety. On the contrary, access to a wide range of reading materials helps people learn that there are lawful non-violent ways to solve the problems that they will inevitably face when they return to the community.”

PLN was represented by attorneys Sanford Jay Rosen, Ernest Galvan, Kenneth Walczak and Blake Thompson of Rosen, Bien, Galvan & Grunfeld LLP, a San Francisco law firm, and by Human Rights Defense Center chief counsel Lance Weber. See: Prison Legal News v. County of Sacramento, U.S.D.C. (E.D. Cal.), Case No. 2:11-cv-00907.

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Related legal case

Prison Legal News v. County of Sacramento