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Human Rights Defense Center Prevails in Censorship Lawsuit Against Napa County Jail, California

by Derek Gilna

Human Rights Defense Center (HRDC), the parent company of Prison Legal News (PLN), entered into a stipulation and consent decree involving Napa County, California’s jail, on June 11, 2020, settling a federal civil action that ended what HRDC termed “a Defendants’ Mail Policy (that) is both unconstitutional on its face and as applied, and is unduly broad and vague.”

At a later court hearing, on March 28, 2021, the same court awarded HRDC and its attorneys $255,925.00 in attorneys’ fees and $808.35 in costs.

According to that consent decree, defendants agreed to, “not refuse to deliver books or other publications to named incarcerated persons at the NCDC (Napa County Detention Center) from any PUBLISHER, as defined above, that are accepted for delivery by the United States Postal Service, with or without a subscription from the PUBLISHER, provided that Defendants may refuse to deliver books or other publications that pose a threat to the order, safety and security of the facility, so long as they provide written notice of the specific basis for the rejection and an administrative review process...”

HRDC filed suit to enjoin Defendants from censoring the publications and correspondence that it mails to incarcerated persons at the Napa County Jail (the Jail). Defendants have adopted and implemented mail policies and practices that unconstitutionally prohibit delivery of publications and correspondence mailed by Plaintiff to persons incarcerated at the Jail, and that deny due process of law to senders, like Plaintiff, whose mail is censored, by failing to provide adequate notice and an opportunity to challenge each instance of censorship.

As noted by HRDC in its complaint, “there is no legitimate penological justification for Defendants to refuse to accept magazines for delivery at the Jail that are held together with ordinary staples. There is no legitimate concern that these small staples pose any potential threat to the safety and security of the Jail. There is also no legitimate penological justification for Defendants to refuse to accept books or magazines for delivery at the Jail unless they are sent by the publisher, or for Defendants to ban books published or distributed by HRDC or any other neutral publisher.”

HRDC also stated, “This is especially true because HRDC’s publications cover topics of great public concern and contain core protected speech, including political speech and social commentary, and educational information relating to the rights of incarcerated persons, pertinent legal cases, and incarcerated persons’ health and safety, and are thus entitled to the highest protection afforded by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.”

HRDC has been active for well over a decade in providing information to prisoners about legal and educational issues and defending those same individuals’ rights to receive free and unfettered access to such information as guaranteed by the Constitution. While the jail agreed to settle the injunctive terms of the case by agreeing to a consent decree, it forced HRDC to litigate its attorney fees with the result that the bulk of the fees awarded were for the attorney time spent litigating the fees rather than the merits of the case. The court ultimately awarded HRDC $255,925.00 in attorneys’ fees and $808.35 in costs.

HRDC was ably represented in this case by the San Francisco law firm of Rosen Bien Galvan and Grunfeld and HRDC litigation director Dan Marshall. See: HRDC v. County of Napa, USDC, ND CA, Case No. 3:20-cv-01296. 

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Related legal case

HRDC v. County of Napa