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HRDC Files Suit Against Southwest Virginia Regional Jail Authority

by Steve Horn

The Human Rights Defense Center (HRDC), which publishes Prison Legal News, has filed a lawsuit in federal court against the Southwest Virginia Regional Jail Authority for censoring publications, books and other materials sent to prisoners.

The case, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia on March 28, 2018, centers around the jail’s 18-month refusal “to deliver hundreds of HRDC’s mailings to incarcerated persons, directly violating HRDC’s First Amendment right to free speech and communication.”

Since September 2016, the complaint contends, the Regional Jail Authority returned over 222 issues of PLN plus books, annual reports, letters and other materials published by HRDC, labeling them “NOT ALLOWED,” “REFUSED” and “UNAUTHORIZED” correspondence. HRDC has also raised a Fourteenth Amendment due process claim because in most cases no notice was given of the censorship. The few times that notice was provided, HRDC had only 10 days to appeal – and the notices did not provide the reason for the rejection.

In its complaint, HRDC says the mail policy enforced by the Regional Jail Authority, which operates four facilities that serve 10 jurisdictions in Virginia, is contrary to the public interest.

“When the Jail Authority prohibits incarcerated persons from receiving outside mail and books, these persons are left in the dark – deprived of the ability to expand their minds through knowledge and education,” the complaint states. “Curtailing this basic human yearning serves no legitimate penological interest; it only exacerbates the public safety problems associated with inadequately preparing persons for re-entry into society.”

Further, as an advocacy organization and news publisher, HRDC was directly harmed by the Regional Jail Authority’s censorship practices.

“HRDC has suffered damages, and will continue to suffer damages, including but not limited to: deprivation of its constitutional rights; frustration of its abilities to disseminate its political message, to recruit new subscribers and supporters, and to advance its mission as a not-for-profit organization; significant diversion of its resources, including staff time; loss of potential subscribers and customers; damage to its reputation; and significant printing, handling, and mailing costs,” the lawsuit states.

HRDC is seeking declaratory and injunctive relief, as well as monetary damages. In regard to injunctive relief, it seeks an order prohibiting the jail from enforcing its unconstitutional censorship policy with respect to publications and other mail sent to prisoners.

On July 3, 2018, the district court granted HRDC’s motion for a preliminary injunction, enjoining the defendants from refusing to deliver publications or correspondence from HRDC on the basis they are printed on colored paper or held together with glue or staples. Additionally, the court ordered the defendants to promptly notify HRDC of the grounds for rejecting any of its publications and to provide a reasonable opportunity to appeal.

“The Jail Authority’s written policies regarding publications, mail, and donated materials do not list any criteria for determining which items will be accepted and which will be rejected,” the district court wrote. Further, with respect to staples, it noted, “PLN is delivered to several maximum-security prisons and to all state prisons in Virginia, and none of these other institutions have raised any concerns about PLN’s use of staples.”

In granting the preliminary injunction the court found that HRDC was “likely to succeed on the merits of its claims,” and waived a bond requirement.

The case remains pending; HRDC is represented by its general counsel, Sabarish Neelakanta, and staff attorneys Dan Marshall and Masimba Mutama, as well as Washington, D.C. attorneys Sean M. Douglass, Chelsea T. Kelley and Thomas G. Hentoff with Williams & Connolly LLP, and Seattle, Washington attorney Bruce E.H. Johnson with Davis Wright Tremaine LLP. See: Human Rights Defense Center v. Southwest Virginia Regional Jail Authority, U.S.D.C. (W.D. Vir.), Case No. 1:18-cv-00013-JPJ-PMS. 


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Related legal case

Human Rights Defense Center v. Southwest Virginia Regional Jail Authority