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PLN Postcard-only Suit Against Knox County, Tennessee Settles for $87,000

by Steve Horn

On April 4, 2018, Prison Legal News settled a lawsuit over unconstitutional mail policies at a jail in Knoxville, Tennessee.

The complaint centered around the censorship of 147 pieces of mail sent to prisoners at the Knox County jail between November 2014 and when the suit was filed in October 2015, including PLN’s monthly magazine, brochures and softcover books. Not only were the mailings censored, but the jail failed to provide PLN with a ration­ale as to why the publications had been denied or an opportunity to appeal. [See: PLN, Nov. 2015, p.58].

Knox County, Sheriff James “J.J.” Jones and Assistant Chief Deputy Rodney Bivens were named as defendants in the case.

PLN argued that it had suffered damages due to violations of its First and Fourteenth Amendment rights, including “the impediment of Plaintiff’s ability to disseminate its political message; frustration of Plaintiff’s non-profit organizational mission; the diversion of Plaintiff’s resources; the loss of potential subscribers and customers; and the inability to recruit new subscribers and supporters, among other damages.”

In October 2016, the defendants filed an amended answer in which they admitted they had violated PLN’s rights due to a policy restricting correspondence to postcards only, by rejecting PLN’s monthly publication and books sent to prisoners.

The jail had tried to institute an “electronic inmate communications system,” in which correspondence and publications would be scanned and delivered to prisoners electronically via tablets and kiosks. However, the defendants were forced to admit during the litigation that the electronic system was technically unfeasible and failed to provide prisoners with constitutionally adequate access to their mail, requiring the jail to revert to its former policy of delivering correspondence and publications to prisoners.

Under the terms of the settlement, PLN received $25,000 in damages as well as the ability to distribute its publications to prisoners at the Knox County jail. The defendants also agreed to pay $62,000 in PLN’s attorneys’ fees and costs. Because the case settled, the legal merits of the jail’s postcard-only policy were not reached. PLN was represented by its general counsel, Sabarish Neelakanta, and by Nashville attorney Tricia Herzfeld. See: Prison Legal News v. Jones, U.S.D.C. (E.D. Tenn.), Case No. 3:15-cv-00452-TAV-CCS. 


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Related legal case

Prison Legal News v. Jones