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PLN Settles Censorship Challenge at Oklahoma Jail for $125,000

by Derek Gilna

Faced with the censorship of its monthly publication and other correspondence by a jail in Pottawatomie County, Oklahoma, Prison Legal News, a project of the Human Rights Defense Center (HRDC), filed suit in federal district court in September 2015. Following 16 months of litigation, the Pottawatomie County Public Safety Center Trust (PCPSCT) and PLN entered into a consent decree to resolve the case.

In its complaint, PLN alleged that the jail’s “mail policies and practices unconstitutionally prohibit delivery of Plaintiff’s mail to prisoners ... in violation of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.” PLN also objected to the denial of “due process of law to senders of censored mail by failing to provide notice of and an opportunity to challenge each instance of censorship as required by the Fourteenth Amendment,” and sought attorney fees and costs.

Four months after PLN filed suit, in January 2016, PCPSCT announced that it had adopted a revised mail policy at the jail. However, PLN noted that the “new policy was still constitutionally deficient because ... [it] did not explicitly state that a prisoner’s right to receive ‘correspondence’ included books, newspapers, [and] magazines absent some reasonable penological reason to exclude the materials that had been subject to a blanket ban under the superseded policy.”

After several more months of discovery and the filing of cross-motions for summary judgment, PCPSCT agreed to enter into a court-supervised consent decree that requires the jail to deliver books, magazines, newsletters and newspapers to prisoners. If publications are censored, the jail must contact the sender within three business days and notify them of the facility’s administrative appeals process.

Further, the consent decree specifies that “PCPSCT is permanently enjoined from (a) refusing to deliver mail to prisoners on the grounds that the mail is not a postcard or on the grounds that the mail was sent in an envelope containing multiple pieces of paper; (b) refusing to ensure information, which indicates the date of the enclosed letter or materials and the sender of them, is delivered to prisoners, in the absence of the envelope itself or a copy being delivered; and refusing to deliver any content other than that typically included for mail delivery reasons, e.g. artwork, drawings, or brief messages to the recipient; (c) refusing to deliver mail to prisoners from a licensed attorney on the basis that no attorney-client relationship exists; and (d) failing to provide due process (i.e., adequate notice and a meaningful opportunity to appeal) to senders of mail when depriving them of their liberty interest in free speech, through the mail, with people detained at the PCPSC.”

The consent decree was approved by the district court on February 27, 2017. PCPSCT also agreed to pay $125,000 in damages and attorney fees. PLN was ably represented by attorneys Angela C. Galloway and Bruce Johnson with the law firm of David Wright Tremaine, attorneys Robert D. Nelon and Ashley K. Roche with Hall Estill, and HRDC attorneys Sabarish Neelakanta and Lance Weber. See: Prison Legal News v. Pottawatomie County Public Safety Center Trust, U.S.D.C. (W.D. Okla.), Case No. 5:15-cv-01090-R.

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Related legal case

Prison Legal News v. Pottawatomie County Public Safety Center Trust