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HRDC Sues Indiana Sheriff Over Censorship at County Jail

by Chuck Sharman

On June 27, 2022, the Human Rights Defense Center (HRDC), the nonprofit that publishes PLN, filed suit in federal court for the Northern District of Indiana under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, accusing St. Joseph County Sheriff William J. Redman of violating the firm’s First Amendment and due-process rights by systematically rejecting publications HRDC sent to prisoners at the county jail.

HRDC, which has published PLN since 1990 and Criminal Legal News (CLN) since 2017, sent copies of back issues of both magazines to ten prisoners at the jail in July 2021, selecting their names from “publicly available information” that indicated they “were charged with serious offenses and could likely use the information provided in the publications,” according to the complaint.

The jail rejected all of these materials, sending notice back to HRDC that only paid subscribers could receive publications, and even then only current issues would be accepted, with everything else held and handed over to prisoners upon release, per jail policy. However, no explanation was given for this policy.

As HRDC’s complaint noted, it “frequently sends publications to prisoners who [have] not sought them to further HRDC’s mission of public education and outreach.” Yet Sheriff Redman “[a]t no time” provided HRDC “an opportunity to be heard concerning the refusal to allow back issues of HRDC’s magazines to be received by the prisoners.”

HRDC also provided the same ten prisoners free subscriptions to both magazines, beginning in August 2021. All were rejected under the jail’s ban on unpaid subscriptions and “staples.” Again, no opportunity was provided to correct these alleged defects, nor did the jail explain its policies.

In April 2022, HRDC sent free subscriptions to both magazines to an additional six prisoners, the first issues of which were also rejected as “unpaid” and for “staples.” Other issues sent were also apparently rejected, though without any notice provided to HRDC at all.

As the complaint noted, the Sheriff’s policy left HRDC in a box: “There are no alternative means for HRDC to communicate the information contained in its magazines to the prisoners in the St. Joseph County Jail” except by gifting them subscriptions, and that is banned by a jail policy “not supported by a rational connection to a legitimate penological interest.”

Even the “no staples” policy has an easy solution, the complaint noted, citing another case the firm won in Virginia after a federal judge pointed out that “[s]imply removing staples from an issue of PLN or CLN takes no more time than completing and sending a confiscation form.” See: Human. Rights Def. Ctr. v. Sw. Va. Reg’l Jail Auth., 396 F. Supp. 3d 607 (W.D. Va. 2019).

Accordingly, the firm is requesting “a preliminary injunction, later to be made permanent,” that will prevent “Defendant from prohibiting prisoners from receiving publications from Plaintiff sent to St. Joseph County Jail prisoners solely because they are unsolicited, not by subscription, not current issues, and/or because they contain staples,” as well as require “Defendant to provide notice to Plaintiff and an opportunity to be heard when Defendant refuses to allow any of Plaintiff’s publications to be received by prisoners” in the jail.

The complaint also asks the Court to award HRDC damages, costs and reasonable attorney’s fees in addition to “other proper relief.” HRDC is represented by attorneys Kenneth J. Falk and Stevie J. Pactor of the ACLU of Indiana, as well as in-house Litigation Director Daniel Marshall and staff attorney Jesse Issom. See: Human. Rights Def. Ctr. v. Redman, USDC (N.D. Ind.), Case No. 3:22-cv-00489. 

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Related legal cases

Human. Rights Def. Ctr. v. Redman

Human. Rights Def. Ctr. v. Sw. Va. Reg’l Jail Auth.