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HRDC Sues New Hampshire Jail over Publications Banned under No-Hard-Copy Mail Policy

By Sam Rutherford

On March 11, 2022, the Human Rights Defense Center (HRDC), PLN’s publisher, filed suit in U.S. District Court for the District of New Hampshire under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging that the Strafford County House of Correction (HOC) violated its rights under the First and Fourteenth Amendments by refusing to deliver all hard-copy mail, including books, magazines, and letters, it sent to prisoners and by failing to provide notice or an opportunity to appeal such rejections.

Named defendants in the suit are the Strafford County Board of Commissioners, County Administrator Raymond F. Bower and Superintendent Christopher Brackett. The complaint seeks declaratory, injunctive, and monetary relief, including an award of costs and attorneys’ fees for the defendants’ unconstitutional actions.

On June 12, 2017, HOC enacted a policy eliminating nearly all incoming mail. The official purpose of the policy change was to eradicate the introduction of contraband, and more specifically illegal drugs, into the facility. However, defendants failed to acknowledge that a multiagency criminal investigation earlier that year determined that it was jail staff who were often responsible for smuggling drugs and other contraband.

Defendants also failed to acknowledge that their ban on hard copy-mail dovetailed with a new contract HOC entered with Global Tel-Link (GTL) to provide communication services between prisoners and their friends and families, including the use of GTL tablets to correspond via a limited e-mail service for a fee.

Beginning in June 2017 and through October 2020, HRDC mailed dozens of HOC prisoners softcover books, magazines and subscription-related letters, as well as letters seeking confirmation that the materials were received. A few prisoners responded that they received some of the materials HRDC sent. Other prisoners did not respond to HRDC’s inquiries, likely because they did not receive letters sent to them, while many more answered they had not received the materials mailed to them. Many of the materials were returned to HRDC by the jail using the USPS return-to-sender service. At no point was HRDC given notice of its censored mail nor any opportunity to appeal the censorship.

As described in HRDC’s complaint, “Defendants’ policies and practices constitute a de facto ban on HRDC’s books, magazines, and other correspondence sent to prisoners at the Jail. As a result, Defendants’ publications policies and practices violate HRDC’s rights under the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment.”

The complaint also alleges a violation of HRDC’s due-process rights because “Defendants engage in policies and practices that fail to provide senders of censored mail notice of and an opportunity to appeal the censorship of the mail to the intended prisoner.”

As a result of defendants’ unconstitutional actions, the complaint continues, “HRDC has suffered damages, and will continue to suffer damages, including, but not limited to: the suppression of HRDC’s speech; the impediment of HRDC’s ability to disseminate its political message; frustration of HRDC’s nonprofit organizational mission; the loss of potential subscribers and customers; and, the inability to recruit new subscribers and supporters.”

HRDC seeks a declaration from the Court that defendants’ policies and practices violate the Constitution, as well as a preliminary and permanent injunction enjoining defendants from continuing to implement these unconstitutional policies and practices, along with compensatory and punitive damages in an amount to be proved at trial, plus an award of its costs and reasonable attorneys’ fees.

HRDC is a non-profit that has published PLN since 1990 and Criminal Legal News since 2017. It is represented by in-house General Counsel Daniel Marshall and staff attorney Jesse W. Isom, as well as Manchester attorneys Edward J. Sackman and Matthew Miller of Bernstein Shur Sawyer & Nelson. Additional case details will be provided as they become available. See: Human Rights Def. Ctr. v. Bd. of Cnty. Comm’rs, USDC (D. N.H.), Case No. 1:22-cv-00091.

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Related legal case

Human Rights Def. Ctr. v. Bd. of Cnty. Comm’rs