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PLN Lawsuit Ends No-Publication Policy at Washington Jail, Results in $180,000 Settlement

Less than 90 days after PLN filed suit challenging a no-publication mail policy at Washington State’s Chelan County Regional Justice Center (RJC), the defendants conceded the policy was unconstitutional and agreed to the entry of a consent decree and payment of $180,000 in damages, attorney fees and costs.

The settlement was approved on December 1, 2011 by U.S. District Court Judge Edward F. Shea. At issue in the lawsuit was the RJC’s September 21, 2010 mail policy “that banned all incoming periodicals and magazines, except for one specific newspaper, and banned all books of any kind.”

From December 2010 through September 9, 2011 when the lawsuit was filed, mailings sent to RJC prisoners by PLN were censored. At least 70 issues of PLN and 31 copies of Protecting Your Health and Safety, a book published by the Southern Poverty Law Center, were rejected. The RJC also censored informational brochures, book catalogs and book offers that PLN mailed to prisoners in envelopes.

Of the 112 items PLN sent to RJC prisoners, “Mail Denial Notice” forms were received for only two pieces of censored mail. None of the PLN magazines or envelopes with brochures were returned. Most, but not all, of the rejected books were sent back to PLN.
The Mail Denial Notices did not inform PLN how to appeal the censorship decisions.

As a result of the censorship and failure to provide due process notice, RJC officials frustrated PLN’s organizational mission and caused financial harm in the form of diversion of PLN’s resources, lost subscriptions and book orders, and return-to-sender charges. The RJC defendants conceded that the mail policy violated the First Amendment and that the Mail Denial Notices – or lack thereof – violated the Fourteenth Amendment. They therefore agreed that a permanent injunction was appropriate.

As a result, the consent decree prohibits the RJC from rejecting mail without providing constitutionally adequate due process. It also may not reject incoming mail simply because it is a periodical magazine or other form of publication such as catalogs, brochures or paperback books. The consent decree applies to any person or entity that takes over responsibility for the operation of the RJC in the future. The defendants also were ordered to update their Mail Denial Notice form.

As a prevailing party in the suit, PLN was awarded $114,000 in damages, $65,145 in attorney fees and $855 in costs. PLN was represented by attorneys Jesse A. 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. 2:11-cv-00337-EFS.

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Related legal case

Prison Legal News v. Chelan County