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PLN Challenges Postcard-only Policy at Florida Jail

On December 17, 2013, Prison Legal News filed suit in federal court against St. Lucie County, Florida Sheriff Ken J. Mascara; the lawsuit alleges unconstitutional censorship based on a policy at the county jail that prohibits prisoners from receiving letters, books and magazines. Aside from legal mail, the policy dictates that nothing but postcards will be delivered to prisoners, without notifying the senders about their right to challenge such censorship.

PLN filed suit after dozens of issues of its monthly publication, as well as subscription brochures and books, including a paperback book entitled Protecting Your Health and Safety, were rejected by St. Lucie County jail officials, who failed to provide PLN an opportunity to appeal the rejections.

According to PLN’s complaint, pursuant to the jail’s mail policy adopted in 2010, “Magazines, paperback or hardcover books (i.e. novels) cannot be received through the mail.” Some of the publications, brochures and books sent to prisoners by PLN and rejected by jail staff were returned marked “Postcards Only” and “Return to Sender.”

“Most people held in jail are awaiting trial and thus are presumed innocent,” observed PLN editor Paul Wright, who also serves as executive director of the Human Rights Defense Center (HRDC). “Government officials cannot constitutionally prohibit prisoners from receiving letters, books and other publications, and cannot constitutionally prevent people outside jail, including publishers, from communicating with those who are incarcerated,” he said. “The last time I checked, the First Amendment did not include an exception for St. Lucie County.”

“Being able to receive letters, books and magazines is critical to someone who is incarcerated,” added Dante Trevisani, an attorney with the Florida Justice Institute, which represents Prison Legal News in the lawsuit.

PLN is seeking declaratory and injunctive relief, as well as nominal and compensatory damages “for the violation of PLN’s First and Fourteenth Amendment rights, the failure to deliver PLN’s materials, the failure to provide PLN with constitutionally required notice and an opportunity to be heard, the impediment of PLN’s ability to disseminate its political message, the frustration of PLN’s organizational mission, the diversion of PLN’s resources, PLN’s loss of potential subscribers and customers, PLN’s inability to recruit new subscribers and supporters, PLN’s loss of reputation, PLN’s printing, handling and mailing costs, costs of staff time, and other damages to be proven at trial,” plus attorneys’ fees and costs.

Prison Legal News has successfully challenged postcard-only policies and other forms of censorship at jails in other jurisdictions, including in Berkeley County, South Carolina; Fulton County, Georgia; and Shawnee County, Kansas. [See: PLN, Feb. 2012, p.14; Oct. 2011, p.41; June 2010, p.32]. As recently as September 30, 2013, a federal court entered a preliminary injunction in a censorship lawsuit filed by PLN against the Upshur County Jail in Texas, and on April 24, 2013 a federal court in Oregon entered judgment for PLN in a suit challenging a postcard-only policy at the Columbia County Jail. [See: PLN, June 2013, p.42].

The Florida Justice Institute, a public interest law firm, has successfully challenged postcard-only policies in Florida at the Flagler and Santa Rosa County jails [see: PLN, Nov. 2012, p.32], and has prevailed in a number of other First Amendment cases against other county jails and the Florida Department of Corrections.

PLN is represented by attorneys Randall C. Berg, Jr. and Dante P. Trevisani with the Florida Justice Institute, HRDC general counsel Lance Weber and HRDC staff attorney Robert Jack. See: Prison Legal News v. Mascara, U.S.D.C. (S.D. Fla.), Case No. 2:13-cv-14481.

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