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PLN Settles Censorship Suit Against Illinois County for $75,000, Policy Changes

by Lonnie Burton

On June 17, 2016, Kane County, Illinois ratified a settlement agreement with Prison Legal News to resolve a federal lawsuit after dozens of copies of PLN sent to prisoners at the county’s jail were rejected. The county agreed to pay $75,000 in fees to PLN’s attorneys with the Loevy & Loevy law firm in Chicago, and to make certain policy changes to allow PLN’s monthly publication at the jail.

According to thecomplaint, at least 98 copies of PLN were rejected between August 2012 and June 2015. Many of those issues were returned to PLN’s office in Lake Worth, Florida, with writing in large black ink on the cover stating, “NO STAPLES ALLOWED.”

Notices sent by jail officials to PLN advised that censorship decisions “may be appealed by the detainee to the Commander or his/her designee within seven (7) days of receipt of this notice,” and that appeals by the sender could be filed within 20 days.

PLN submitted numerous appeals protesting Kane County’s continued rejection of its publication. In a typical appeal to the jail commander, PLN complained that the notice failed to state “how rejection of the publication serves a legitimate governmental interest,” and asked why censored publications were not kept at the jail during a review of the appeal.

One response sent to PLN editor Paul Wright by Kane County Adult Justice Center Commander Corey Hunger merely restated the jail’s rule that “no mail with staples is allowed in the facility due to safety and security issues,” and that “due to facility policy, all denied mail is returned to sender.” He did not explain how staples threatened jail security, why they could not be removed by mailroom staff or why rejected mail was returned to the sender pending resolution of the appeal process.

After nearly three years of trying to resolve censorship issues administratively, PLN filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois seeking declatory and injunctive relief, unspecified damages, attorneys’ fees and costs. The lawsuit alleged that Kane County, the sheriff and several named and unnamed jail employees had violated PLN’s First, Fifth and Fourteenth Amendment rights, and asked the court to enjoin county officials from continuing to deny delivery of Prison Legal News to prisoners at the jail.

Filed on October 19, 2015, the case took less than a year to settle.

Along with agreeing to pay $75,000 in PLN’s attorneys’ fees, Kane County officials also agreed to have jail staff remove the staples and then deliver copies of PLN, to change its mail policy and post the changes within thirty days of the settlement, and to purchase 10 one-year subscriptions to Prison Legal News. The agreement did not include an admission of liability by the county.

In a statement, Kane County Board Chairman Chris Lauzen said the State’s Attorney’s Office felt it could not defend the county “for less than the settlement amount, so the board authorized me to sign the agreement.” Lauzen stated he will blame PLN if any prisoner or guard is “injured by the use of some staples” at the jail. “It will be the responsibility of the organization that filed this suit,” he argued, though it is unclear how staples would enter the jail when, under the settlement, jail staff will remove them.

“Prisoners in jail are supposed to be able to receive books and magazines,” said Wright. “The jail cannot use ‘bound by staples’ as an excuse not to deliver them.” In addition to Loevy & Loevy, PLN was represented by its own attorneys with the Human Rights Defense Center, Lance Weber and Sabarish Neelakanta. See: Prison Legal News v. County of Kane, U.S.D.C. (N.D. Ill.), Case No. 1:15-cv-09250. 


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Related legal case

Prison Legal News v. County of Kane