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Cook County Sheriff’s Office Pays $110,000 to Settle PLN Censorship Suit

On June 25, 2019, Cook County, Illinois finalized a settlement in a lawsuit filed by Prison Legal News, a project of the Human Rights Defense Center (HRDC), over the censorship of publications mailed to prisoners at the county jail.

In 2016, PLN filed suit in U.S. District Court against Cook County, Sheriff Thomas Dart and Nneka Jones Tapia, executive director of the Cook County Jail. [See: PLN, April 2017, p.33].

The complaint noted the jail had a policy that banned incoming newspapers and newsprint publications, including PLN. The policy was enforced despite a 2015 federal court ruling that held such censorship was unconstitutional. [See: PLN, June 2016, p.40]. Additionally, the jail censored softcover books that PLN had sent to prisoners, including copies of the Prisoners’ Guerilla Handbook to Correspondence Programs in the United States & Canada.

According to the complaint, between March 2015 and June 2016, the Cook County Jail censored at least 112 issues of Prison Legal News and 17 copies of the Prisoners’ Guerilla Handbook. There was “no legitimate penological reason” for censoring PLN; likewise, there was no legitimate reason to censor the Prisoners’ Guerilla Handbook, which is a resource guide for educational correspondence programs for prisoners.

The Cook County Jail allowed prisoners to receive other publications and books that were not mailed by PLN. Further, jail officials did not notify PLN of the censorship of its books and publications or provide an opportunity to appeal, in violation of its due process rights.

PLN sought injunctive and declaratory relief, as well as damages for “the suppression of Plaintiff’s speech; the impediment of Plaintiff’s ability to disseminate its political message; frustration of Plaintiff’s non-profit organizational mission; the loss of potential subscribers and customers; and the inability to recruit new subscribers and supporters, among other damages.”

A preliminary settlement was reached on December 3, 2018, in which Cook County agreed to deliver PLN’s publications addressed to individual prisoners at the jail, and not to censor those publications “solely because they are printed on newsprint.”

In addition, if any PLN publications are withheld from prisoners, jail officials will provide written notice within five business days, and the jail will establish and implement policies to satisfy the settlement terms. Copies of the policies will be made available to both jail staff and prisoners within 60 days, and included in the facility’s prisoner handbook.

Finally, Cook County agreed to pay $35,000 in damages plus $75,000 for PLN’s attorney fees and costs. The federal district court will retain jurisdiction over the case for three years for the purpose of enforcing the terms of the settlement agreement. 

“Censorship of reading material impedes prisoner education and forecloses one of the few outlets prisoners have to read and learn – an essential factor in reducing recidivism,” said Sabarish Neelakanta, HRDC’s general counsel and litigation director. “The court-ordered injunction reinforces the First Amendment rights of prisoners in the Cook County Jail to have access to books and magazines and prevent jail officials from arbitrarily censoring reading material.”

“Censorship by government officials is rarely justifiable,” added HRDC executive director and PLN editor Paul Wright. “This is particularly true when jails censor books and publications that inform prisoners about their legal rights and advance their education. HRDC is one of the few publishers that regularly sues to protect our First Amendment rights, and banning publications under the pretext that they’re printed on newsprint does not pass constitutional muster.”

PLN was represented by attorneys Joshua H. Burday, Matthew V. Topic, Arthur R. Loevy and Jonathan I. Loevy with the Chicago law firm of Loevy & Loevy, and by HRDC general counsel Sabarish Neelakanta and staff attorney Dan Marshall. See: Prison Legal News v. County of Cook, U.S.D.C. (N.D. Ill.), Case No. 1:16-cv-06862. 

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Source: HRDC press release (June 26, 2019)

Related legal case

Prison Legal News v. County of Cook