by Paul Wright
Each summer there is a wave of heat-related deaths in American prisons, mostly in the southern states of the former confederacy where the government has adopted a policy of explicit cruelty by building prisons without air conditioning to ensure the misery of the caged. This year will be no different, so we are getting the summer started with an overview of recent litigation and other developments on the excessive – and sometimes fatal – summer heat that U.S. prisoners suffer. What is often overlooked in these stories is the pathetic state of work conditions for staff members. While prisoners endure sweltering cell blocks during the summer months, so do the guards assigned to watch over them; apparently they are content to sweat their way through 40-hour work weeks. It is not about the cost of air conditioning prisons so much as cruelty and making sure prisoners are as miserable as possible, even if it kills them.
On the topic of miserable conditions in the deep south, on May 15, 2018, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the censorship of Prison Legal News by the Florida Department of Corrections. The FDOC has censored all issues of PLN since 2009, claiming ads for pen pal services, postage stamps and discount phone services constitute a threat to prison security. We filed suit challenging the ban and went to trial before U.S. District Court Judge Mark Walker in Tallahassee in 2015. Judge Walker ruled against us on our First Amendment claims, holding that despite no evidence and the fact that no other prison or jail had censored PLN based on our advertising content, the FDOC’s censorship was constitutional. The court did hold that our due process rights had been violated when the FDOC failed to notify us of the censorship, and an injunction was issued on that claim.
We appealed and the Eleventh Circuit, in an opinion by Judge Ed Carnes, upheld the FDOC’s statewide ban on PLN. In 30 years of publishing, the ruling is one of the most vitriolic and anti-free speech court opinions I have seen. We will be reporting it in an upcoming issue of PLN, and are going to seek certiorari review from the U.S. Supreme Court. HRDC and PLN are represented by former U.S. Solicitor General Paul Clement at the law firm of Kirkland & Ellis; by former White House Counsel Mike McGinley at Dechert LLP; by Randy Berg and Dante Trevisani at the Florida Justice Institute; and by HRDC general counsel Sabarish Neelakanta and staff attorneys Dan Marshall, Masimba Mutamba and Deborah Golden. Substantial groups in the news media and criminal justice advocacy communities, as well as law professors and retired corrections professionals, have committed to submitting amicus briefs on our behalf.
Since 2009, HRDC has been fighting this battle to ensure Florida prisoners can receive PLN and read about the systemic abuses, corruption and problems in that state’s prison system and what can be done about them. It has been a long and costly fight. HRDC attorneys alone have spent well over a thousand hours litigating this issue.
If you can make a donation to help get this case to the Supreme Court, it will make an enormous difference. I had hoped to have a quiet summer getting caught up on various projects. Instead, our legal team and I are focusing heavily on ensuring our cert petition has the best chance of being granted and then winning on the merits. Your help in these cases makes all the difference, and ensures we have the resources to slug it out with prison systems like Florida’s for nearly a decade. No other publisher stands up for the rights of prisoners and publishers against censorship by prison and jail officials like HRDC and PLN do. If you believe in free speech and the role an independent media should play in our purported “democracy,” then this is your chance to support it. All donations help, no matter how big or small.
We will report the outcome of the cert petition once the Supreme Court rules on it. I would like to thank everyone who has helped support our fight against the FDOC – the nation’s third largest state prison system – over the past decade. As you read this issue of PLN, remember that Florida prisoners have not been able to receive our publication since 2009. Thank you for supporting HRDC and PLN, and please encourage others to do so as well.
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