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$350,000 Settlement in PLN Censorship Suit Against Ventura County, California

$350,000 Settlement in PLN Censorship Suit Against Ventura County, California

by Derek Gilna

In a victory for the First Amendment rights of prisoners and those who correspond with them, Prison Legal News recently obtained a substantial settlement in a lawsuit filed against the Ventura County Sheriff’s Office in California.

PLN brought suit in federal district court on January 31, 2014, alleging that the sheriff’s policy of limiting incoming and outgoing mail to postcards at the county jail violated PLN’s right to freely distribute information, correspondence and subscription forms to prisoners at the facility.

In recent years, PLN has challenged postcard-only policies at jails across the nation with a high degree of success, arguing that such policies are unconstitutional and unreasonably restrict correspondence between prisoners and those on the outside, including their family members and children. [See, e.g.: PLN, Oct. 2014, p.23; April 2014, p.44].

Ventura County attempted to justify its postcard-only policy by arguing that contraband had been sent to the jail in envelopes and prisoners were using letters to conduct criminal activity. U.S. District Court Judge George H. King found those arguments unpersuasive, and entered a preliminary injunction on May 29, 2014 that barred the sheriff’s office from enforcing the postcard-only policy. [See: PLN, July 2014, p.16].

The county initially appealed the preliminary injunction order to the Ninth Circuit, but then settled the case in July 2014. Under the settlement, Ventura County agreed to a restructuring of the sheriff’s policy related to prisoner mail and paid $350,000 in damages, attorneys’ fees and costs

The county agreed “[to] not refuse to deliver correspondence to or from inmates at the County’s jails on the ground that correspondence is not written on a postcard ... [to] not refuse to deliver correspondence, catalogs or subscription order forms to inmates at the Jail on the basis that inmates cannot order subscriptions or other reading material, ... [to] not refuse to deliver correspondence to inmates at the Jail that were Xeroxed, photocopies or printed from the Internet, ... [to] not refuse to deliver copies of publications from Plaintiff or other publishers on account of sexually ‘suggestive’ content, unless the publication contains images of exposed genitalia, buttocks or female breasts and/or graphic depictions of sexual acts, [and to] not prohibit inmates from ordering books, magazines or other publications.”

The Ventura County Sheriff’s Office also agreed to “conduct a four (4) hour training block in order to adequately familiarize all mailroom staff persons with the provisions of the [new] mail policy,” and “thereafter conduct two (2) hour annual legal updates.” The district court retained jurisdiction to enforce the terms of the settlement, and entered a permanent injunction on September 4, 2014.

PLN was represented by attorneys Brian Vogel of Ventura and Ernest Galvan with the San Francisco law firm of Rosen Bien Galvan & Grunfeld, plus Lance Weber, general counsel for the Human Rights Defense Center, PLN’s parent organization. See: Prison Legal News v. County of Ventura, U.S.D.C. (C.D. Cal.), Case No. 2:14-cv-00773-GHK-E.


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Related legal case

Prison Legal News v. County of Ventura