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HRDC Settles California Jail Censorship Suit for $143,500, Consent Decree

On May 13, 2020, the Human Rights Defense Center (HRDC), the parent organization of Prison Legal News, settled a federal civil rights action concerning California’s Tehama County Jail censorship of prisoner publications like PLN in violation of the First Amendment.

The complaint, filed February 14, 2020 in the Eastern District of California, Sacramento federal court, alleged that Tehama County and its sheriff, Dave Hencratt, had refused to accept books and publications at the jail unless they were mailed “directly from the publisher” or from online services such as Amazon, and banned books “published or distributed by HRDC and other neutral publishers and distributors other than those listed in Defendants’ Mail Policy.”

The lawsuit noted that “HRDC publishes and distributes books, magazines, and other materials containing news and analysis about prisons, jails and other detention facilities, prisoners’ rights, court rulings, management of prison facilities, prison conditions, and other matters pertaining to the rights and/or interests of incarcerated individuals. HRDC’s publications contain political speech and social commentary, which are core First Amendment rights and are entitled to the highest protection afforded by the United States Constitution.”

HRDC further alleged that there was no legitimate reason for the jail to refuse to accept magazines “held together with ordinary staples” or that small staples pose any security threat.

HRDC said it had identified in its complaint at least 93 instances where the jail had denied HRDC materials to 20 incarcerated individuals. These materials included 22 issues of PLN, 23 issues of Criminal Legal News, 14 copies of the Prisoner’s Handbook and ten judicial opinions.

As part of the settlement, the jail agreed to deliver the previously banned materials in the future and to inform prisoners if it rejected any material, and if so on what grounds. It also agreed to provide for an appeal process in such cases.

Related legal case

Human Rights Defense Center v. County of Tehama, et al.