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Washington State: Injunction Entered Against Lewis County in PLN Censorship Suit

Washington State: Injunction Entered Against Lewis County in PLN Censorship Suit

On September 10, 2014 a federal judge entered a preliminary injunction against Lewis County, Washington in a lawsuit challenging a postcard-only mail policy at the county jail.

The lawsuit, filed by Prison Legal News in April 2014, alleged that the jail’s policy of restricting incoming and outgoing correspondence to postcards violated PLN’s rights under the First Amendment. Further, the complaint argued that the jail’s failure to provide notice to the sender when mail was censored or rejected violated the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

While county officials claimed the jail had changed its mail policy after the suit was filed, “and is now allowing news sources to distribute both publications and other forms of correspondence to prisoners,” U.S. Magistrate Judge J. Richard Creatura wrote there was “substantial evidence to believe that this policy has not yet been adopted.” Further, “First Amendment rights are too important to be subject to such arbitrariness,” he added.

Between September and October 2013, pursuant to the jail’s postcard-only policy, jailers had rejected dozens of letters sent to prisoners by PLN, including subscription brochures, book catalogs and copies of court rulings.

“The postcard-only policy drastically reduces prisoners’ and other correspondents’ ability to communicate. It is more than a mere inconvenience and becomes a substantial barrier to First Amendment rights,” Judge Creatura stated, noting that the Washington Department of Corrections and other jail systems in the state, including those in King, Pierce and Spokane counties, do not have postcard-only policies.

The district court enjoined county officials from “restricting incoming and outgoing prisoner mail to postcards only,” from “rejecting mail to or from prisoners without providing notice to the prisoner” and from “rejecting mail from non-prisoner correspondents without providing notice to the non-prisoner correspondent.” The court also required appeals of rejected mail to be referred to a jail official “other than the person who originally rejected the correspondence.”

“We are pleased that the court found the constitutional violations at the jail warranted the entry of an injunction against Lewis County,” said PLN editor Paul Wright. “No one is above the law or the Constitution – and sometimes it takes a federal judge to make that clear.”

Jesse Wing, one of PLN’s attorneys, noted that the jail’s restrictive mail policy not only harmed pretrial detainees who have not been convicted, but also people in the community who want to correspond with prisoners. Communicating with the outside world is “essential to maintaining family, employment, educational and other important relationships critical for a person to productively return to society after time in jail,” he said. “The court’s order has a huge positive effect, helping many people.”

PLNis represented by attorneys Jesse A. Wing and Katherine Chamberlain with the Seattle law firm of MacDonald Hoague & Bayless, and by Human Rights Defense Center general counsel Lance Weber. The case remains pending. See: Prison Legal News v. Lewis County, U.S.D.C. (W.D. Wash.), Case No. 3:14-cv-05304-JRC.

Sources: HRDC press release (Sept. 11, 2014); www.courthousenews.com

 

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