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PLN Censorship Suit Against Virginia Jail Headed to Trial

A lawsuit filed by Prison Legal News against censorship practices at the Northwest Regional Adult Detention Center (NWADC) in Winchester, Virginia has been scheduled for a jury trial later this year.

The suit will proceed with NWADC and Superintendent James F. Whitley as named defendants, and alleges the jail “adopted and implemented policies that unconstitutionally prohibit delivery of publications to prisoners in their custody and do not afford senders of censored mail due process notice and an opportunity to challenge the censorship as required by the Constitution.”

Subsequent to the complaint being filed, two consent orders were entered. As a result, prisoners were allowed to possess more books and receive publications through the mail while the case is pending. Further, the consent decrees require the sender and recipient to be notified if mail is rejected, with a specific reason given for the rejection, and the sender or prisoner must be afforded an opportunity to file a written appeal.

The consent decrees did not resolve all the issues raised in the suit, especially those involving declaratory relief, damages and attorney fees. In September 2017, the district court issued an order on the parties’ cross-motions for summary judgment.

The court considered PLN’s First Amendment claim and found several cases that addressed mail policies similar to those implemented at NWADC, but noted “they do not answer the question” of whether the rationale for the jail’s policy was proper. That rationale was, according to the defendants, “to control contraband and to reduce the amount of inmate personal property.” The court held that a reasonable fact finder could resolve the four-part test under Turner v. Safley, 482 U.S. 78 (1987) in either the defendants’ favor or PLN’s.

In assessing the Turner factors, the district court found the mail policy at NWADC satisfied the first factor in that it was based on a legitimate penological interest. As to the second factor of whether alternative means exist for PLN to exercise its rights, the policy “did not leave any means open to PLN.”

The third factor – the impact on security, staff, prisoners and the allocation of resources at the jail – did “not clearly favor either side,” the court wrote. “It is easy to see a connection between less personal property and lesser security risks.”

The district court also addressed the issue of qualified immunity. It found Superintendent Whitley was entitled to immunity on the First Amendment claim but not PLN’s due process claim. The former was not clearly established, the court held, while the lack of notice when publications were rejected, and whether that violated PLN’s due process rights, were issues a jury must resolve. The court granted the defendants’ motion as to an equal protection claim.

The case is scheduled to go to trial in June 2018, and PLN will report the outcome. See: Prison Legal News v. Northwestern Regional Jail Authority, U.S.D.C. (W.D. Vir.), Case No. 5:15-cv-00061-EKD-JCH. 


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Related legal case

Prison Legal News v. Northwestern Regional Jail Authority