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PLN Prevails in Censorship Suit Against Virginia Jail

by David M. Reutter

A federal district court held that Prison Legal News’ First Amendment and due process rights were violated when reading materials it sent to prisoners at the Northwestern Regional Adult Detention Center (NRADC) in Virginia were rejected due to the jail’s mail policy.

Prior to implementation of an April 1, 2014 policy, prisoners at NRADC could possess one religious book, two educational books, five soft-covered books and an unlimited number of magazines. Once the policy went into effect, they were limited to one book at a time with the exception of religious or educational books, and could only obtain one of the five magazines available on the library cart.
Receipt of books and magazines from publishers was prohibited.

After the new policy went into effect, PLN sent 236 books and magazines to individual prisoners. All were rejected and returned. In addition to rejecting issues of PLN, officials also returned copies of The Habeas Citebook, Protecting Your Health and Safety, andthe Prisoners’ Guerilla Handbook to Correspondence Programs.

Efforts to resolve the matter administratively were unsuccessful, and PLN filed suit in September 2015. [See: PLN, Nov. 2015, p.43]. The parties entered into a consent order in February 2016 that provided for senders of mail to receive notice and an opportunity to be heard when their publications were rejected. A March 2016 consent order allowed prisoners to receive reading materials from publishers, subject to reasonable inspection and limitations on the number of publications.

At issue was whether PLN’s First Amendment and due process rights had been violated and whether it was entitled to damages. The district court found that both constitutional rights had been violated and damages were justified.

The court awarded PLN compensatory damages of $197.12 for the costs of shipping the rejected publications. For each of the 236 rejections, it awarded $2.00 – or $472 for the “lost opportunity to communicate with its intended audience of prisoners.”

The district court’s September 30, 2019 order also awarded $2.00 for each of the 236 due process violations caused by NRADC’s failure to provide notice of the rejections. PLN’s motion for attorneys’ fees and costs remains pending; it is represented by Charlottesville attorneys Jeff Fogel and Steven Rosenfield, and by HRDC staff attorney Masimba Mutamba. 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