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Sherburne County, MN, Settles with HRDC for $98,000 Plus New Jail Publications Policy

by Chuck Sharman

A settlement was reached on May 11, 2021, in a censorship complaint filed in August 2020 against Sherburne County, Minnesota, and its Sheriff, Joel Brott, by the Human Rights Defense Center (HRDC), the Florida nonprofit that publishes Prison Legal News (PLN) and Criminal Legal News (CLN).

Under the settlement agreement, the county will pay $98,000 in damages and attorney fees and costs to HRDC and amend policies at the county jail regarding magazines prisoners may receive by mail, as well as prisoner access to “legal publications”—including those published by HRDC.

HRDC filed its suit after Brott and his employees at the jail continued since June 2019 to “refuse to deliver HRDC’s magazines to incarcerated persons in violation of HRDC’s First Amendment right to free speech and communication,” the complaint noted.

Attempted deliveries of books published by HRDC were also censored and confiscated, albeit inconsistently so.

According to jail policy, incoming prisoner mail was to be checked for “contraband,” which was defined to include “Newspapers/Magazines”—even “small clippings or articles.” Prisoners had no access to electronic reading materials, either. In fact, the only news they were allowed to see was a single shared copy of the Minneapolis Star Tribune—and those prisoners held in segregation could not even see that.

The censored issues of PLN and CLN were integral to HRDC’s mission to disseminate its political views, which is its constitutionally protected right, the complaint noted. Moreover, the publisher had suffered financial harm when prisoners cancelled their subscriptions because they could not receive the magazines they had paid for.

The policy was so restrictive that it didn’t even provide HRDC due process notice that copies of PLN and its other publications had been censored—HRDC had to learn of it from dissatisfied customers at the jail. HRDC also wasn’t provided a chance to challenge the decision, in violation of its Fourteenth Amendment right to due process.

By no longer “prohibit(ing) incarcerated persons from receiving newspapers and magazines,” the jail will finally cease curtailing their “basic legal and educational rights,” as HRDC argued, a restriction that “served no legitimate penological interest” but instead “only exacerbat(ed) the public safety problems associated with the criminal justice system and inadequately preparing persons for re-entry into society.” Thanks to this lawsuit prisoners at the Sherburne jail can now receive publications in the mail.

HRDC was represented in the case pro bono by attorneys R.J. Zayed, Alex Hontos and Donna Reuter with the Minneapolis firm of Dorsey & Whitney LLP and HRDC Litigation director Dan Marshall. See: Human Rights Defense Center v. Sherburne County et al, USDC, Dist. MN, Case No. 0:20-cv-01817-ADM-HB. 

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Related legal case

Human Rights Defense Center v. Sherburne County et al