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$155,000 Settlement in Lawsuit Over California Jail’s Censorship of PLN

by Matthew Clarke

On July 5, 2016, a California federal district court signed off on a consent judgment in a suit filed against Tulare County, California over censorship of Prison Legal News at the county’s jail. To settle the lawsuit, county officials agreed to change the jail’s mail rules to allow delivery of PLN, and pay $155,000 in damages and attorneys’ fees.

Between September 2013 and October 2015, prisoners at the Bob Wiley Detention Center in Visalia, California were sent a total of 336 issues of PLN’s monthly publication. None were delivered. Some were returned to PLN, but no explanation was provided as to why they had been rejected. Subscribers at the jail told PLN that staff had informed them the magazines were denied because they were held together with two small wire staples.

The prisoners also told PLN that they were allowed to receive Our Daily Bread, a Christian publication, as well as jail publications which also were fastened with small wire staples.

Aided by San Francisco attorneys Lisa Ells and Christopher D. Hu with the law firm of Rosen Bien Galvan & Grunfeld LLP, and Human Rights Defense Center attorneys Lance Weber and Sabarish Neelakanta, PLN filed a federal civil rights lawsuit pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against Tulare County, Sheriff Mike Boudreaux and 20 unnamed jail employees.

The complaintalleged that the failure to provide notice of the reason for the censorship and an opportunity to challenge it violated PLN’s due process rights, while allowing another publication to be delivered but not allowing PLN violated its equal protection rights, and permitting a Christian publication while rejecting PLN and other secular publications violated the First Amendment’s establishment clause. [See: PLN, Dec. 2015, p.53].

According to settlement documents, soon after the defendants were served with the lawsuit they changed the jail’s mail policy to eliminate the use of small staples as a reason to deny a publication while retaining the right to remove the staples. The policy also was changed to ensure publishers receive notice when their publications are rejected and provided an opportunity to challenge the censorship. The consent judgment required the county to pay $15,000 in equitable damages plus $140,000 for PLN’s attorneys’ fees.

The only way that PLN learned about the censorship at the Bob Wiley Detention Center was through prisoners who let PLN know their subscriptions weren’t being delivered. PLN has successfully sued numerous jails and prison systems nationwide, obtaining settlements and injunctions ordering those facilities to deliver PLN’s publications. See: Prison Legal News v. County of Tulare, U.S.D.C. (E.D. Cal.), Case No. 1:15-cv-01650-JAM-SAB. 

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