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PLN Wins $230,000 in Settlement that Ends Spokane, Washington Jail’s Postcard-Only Rule

by Matt Clarke

In July 2011, the Board of County Commissioners of Spokane County, Washington agreed to pay $230,000 to Prison Legal News to settle a federal lawsuit challenging unconstitutional restrictions on prisoners’ mail at the Spokane County Jail.

On September 1, 2010, new policies were enacted at the jail that limited incoming and outgoing prisoner mail to 5.5” x 8.5” non-glossy, pre-franked postcards. The only exceptions to the policy were “legal and official mail” and “newspapers, paperback books and approved magazines” specified in the policy. The policy listed fifteen approved magazines, which did not include PLN.

The new policy did not require the jail to notify the sender of rejected mail that it had been censored, give the reasons for censorship or allow the sender an opportunity to appeal censorship decisions.

Once the policy was in effect the jail censored copies of PLN mailed in envelopes personally addressed to prisoners at the jail, a soft-covered book titled Protecting Your Health and Safety, informational and subscription brochures, and a brochure of books sold by PLN. The jail censored these mailings, returning 23 PLN magazines stamped “unauthorized content” and one stamped “not a postcard.” The jail returned 27 one-page informational brochures with “unauthorized content” stamped on thirteen of the envelopes, “unauthorized content” and “postcard policy” stamped on three envelopes, “unauthorized content” and “not a post card” stamped on eight envelopes, and “exceeds 1/4” thickness/size limit” stamped on three envelopes which did not exceed 1/4” in thickness.

The jail also returned four copies of Protecting Your Health and Safety that were stamped “unauthorized content.” No further information or justification for the censorship was provided. PLN was not afforded an opportunity to appeal the censorship of its publications by Spokane County Jail officials.

On January 21, 2011, PLN filed a civil rights action in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Washington pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging that the jail’s new mail policy was unconstitutional because it violated PLN’s First Amendment right to correspond with prisoners and due process rights under the Fourteenth Amendment. On February 14, 2011, the jail amended the policy to eliminate the postcard-only restriction on outgoing prisoner correspondence. Three days later, the policy was again amended to eliminate the postcard-only restriction on incoming business, official and legal mail, and to remove the limitation on only allowing approved magazines. The policy specifically retained a postcard-only restriction for incoming non-business mail.

On July 19, 2011, the defendants settled the case by signing a consent decree and paying PLN $55,000 in damages, $172,867.40 in attorney fees and $2,132.60 in costs, for a total of $230,000. In the consent decree, the defendants con-ceded that the mail policy violated the First and Fourteenth Amendments insofar as they failed to provide notice and an opportunity to be heard to senders of censored mail, allowed jail officials to reject incoming business mail because it was not in postcard form, and restricted the delivery of publications to newspapers, paperback books and approved magazines while rejecting all other types of publications.

While maintaining that the remaining incoming mail postcard-only restriction was constitutional, the defendants agreed to an injunction issued by the court prohibiting them from enforcing the policy, subject to revision should the Supreme Court or the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals uphold a similar policy. PLN was ably represented by Jesse Wing and Katie Chamberlain of the Seattle law firm McDonald, Hogue and Bayless, and Lance Weber, Litigation Director of the Human Rights Defense Center, which publishes PLN. See: Prison Legal News v. Spokane County, U.S.D.C. (E.D. Wash.), Case No. 2:11-cv-00029-RHW.

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Related legal case

Prison Legal News v. Spokane County