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HRDC Settles Lawsuit Against Mississippi Jail that Only Allowed Religious Reading Materials

On October 24, 2018, the Human Rights Defense Center – the parent organization of Prison Legal News – and the Mississippi Center for Justice filed suit on behalf of HRDC in federal court against Forrest County, Sheriff Billy McGee and employees at the Forrest County jail. The complaint noted that “most books and most publications are banned” at the facility, adding, “For the most part, prisoners are allowed to read only the Bible and sometimes other Christian publications.”

Due to the jail’s policies and practices, mail sent by HRDC to prisoners, including books, copies of PLN and court rulings, were rejected by jail officials and returned undelivered. The complaint argued that the jail’s policies resulted in unreasonable censorship in violation of the First Amendment, and that allowing prisoners to only read religious materials violated the Establishment Clause. Further, the jail failed to provide due process notice of the censorship or an opportunity to appeal in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Beginning in August 2018, HRDC mailed dozens of publications to prisoners at the Forrest County jail, including issues of Prison Legal News and Criminal Legal News; several books, including the Prisoners’ Guerilla Handbook: A Guide to Correspondence Programs in the United States and Canada and The Habeas Citebook: Ineffective Assistance of Counsel; printed court rulings; and informational brochures.

The jail censored at least 77 pieces of HRDC’s mail between August and October 2018, including 19 books, 15 court rulings and 29 issues of PLN and CLN. Those mailings were sent back marked “Return to Sender.” The jail did not provide HRDC with notice of the censorship nor provide an opportunity to challenge the rejections.

“Government officials, including Sheriff McGee and his employees at the jail, cannot restrict what prisoners can or cannot read without violating the First Amendment,” said HRDC executive director Paul Wright. “Whether prisoners have been convicted or if they are awaiting trial, and are therefore innocent until proven guilty, limiting their reading options to religious materials is an egregious abuse of government power that has no legitimate purpose.”

“The Bible is very important for those who choose to read it, but so are books of other religious faiths and books that are not about religion,” added Rob McDuff, one of the attorneys who represented HRDC. “Whether in prison or out of prison, people have a right to read stories, history books, educational materials, and a wide range of books and publications that should be available to everyone. Prisons and jails should be encouraging prisoners to read, not limiting them.”

The lawsuit sought an injunction requiring the jail to comply with the First and Fourteenth Amendments; it also requested nominal, compensatory and punitive damages as well as declaratory relief and attorneys’ fees and costs. “The conduct of Defendants was objectively unreasonable and was undertaken recklessly, intentionally, willfully, with malice, and with deliberate indifference to the rights of others,” the complaint stated.

The case settled in January 2019, with county officials agreeing to a stipulated injunction that allows prisoners to receive non-religious reading materials, including publications and books from HRDCand other publishers. Further, if any materials are rejected the sender will be able to appeal, and jail staff will be trained on the new mail policy. The determination of attorneys’ fees and costs remains pending.

HRDC is represented by attorney Beth L. Orlansky with the Mississippi Center for Justice and Jackson attorney Rob McDuff, who directs MCJ’s George Riley Impact Litigation Initiative. HRDC general counsel Sabarish Neelakanta and staff attorneys Masimba Mutamba and Daniel Marshall also serve as counsel in the case. See: Human Rights Defense Center v. Forrest County, U.S.D.C. (S.D. Miss.), Case No. 2:18-cv-00184-KS-MTP. 

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Sources: HRDC press release (Oct. 24, 2018); usnews.com

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