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$45,000 Paid by Idaho Jail to Settle Censorship Suit Filed by HRDC

by Jacob Barrett

In an agreement executed on February 7, 2022, Canyon County, Idaho, agreed to pay $45,000 to settle censorship claims made by the Human Rights Defense Center (HRDC), the nonprofit publisher of PLN and Criminal Legal News (CLN). The County also agreed to a list of policy changes at the county jail that will keep detainees and prisoners there from being deprived of their constitutionally protected right to receive HRDC publications.

HRDC filed suit in federal court for the District of Idaho on December 20, 2021, accusing the County and Sheriff Kieran Donahue of engaging in ongoing censorship of several publications sent to prisoners at the Canyon County Jail (CCJ), in violation of the First and Fourteenth Amendments.

According to the complaint, CCJ had censored at least 21 items of mail sent by HRDC to prisoners and detainees since November 2021, including nine issues each of PLN and CLN, plus three informational packets. Many of the items were returned to HRDC with little more than notations on the envelope such as “Refused,” “Staples Not Allowed,” “Staples + Advertisements Not Allowed,” and “Soliciting Not Allowed.”

As part of the settlement, county and jail officials agreed they will not “refuse to deliver books or other publications” that pose no “threat to the safety and security of the facility” without providing “written notice of the specific basis for the rejection and an appeal process.”

Specifically, Defendants agreed not to make any such refusal because of staples and also to “train Jail staff in the[ir] removal,” replacing the staples with “rubber bands, paperclips, tape, or other appropriate fasteners to keep the publications, correspondence, or documents … together and in their original order.”

Defendants also agreed not to refuse delivery of any item because it contains solicitations, and any refusal must be made within 15 days of receipt. Refusals must also be accompanied by written notice to HRDC of the reason for refusal, along with information regarding the right to appeal. Should HRDC or the intended recipient of a refused item decide to make an appeal, it must be heard within 15 days.

There is also a provision for good-faith negotiations to resolve any delays that may follow a significant increase in the volume of mail HRDC generates to the jail.

HRDC was represented by attorneys Elijah Watkins, Jenny Palmer, and J.B. Evans from the Boise office of Stoel Rives and by HRDC General Counsel Daniel Marshall and staff attorney Jesse Isom.

“Like all Americans, inmates are entitled to free speech and due process protections,” Watkins said. “It is contrary to these core constitutional principles to deprive inmates of information about developments in the law without due process.”

“HRDC’s magazines inform prisoners about criminal justice news, educational opportunities, and their constitutional rights,” noted Marshall. “Banning these publications from reaching those who are in prison is an affront to the First Amendment, as well as counterproductive to the goals of security and rehabilitation.”

“HRDC’s publications are an invaluable resource to inmates, and their right to receive them must be protected,” Watkins agreed.

With the agreement and payment, each party will bear its own attorney fees and costs. See: Human Rights Def. Ctr. v. Canyon Cty., Idaho, USDC (D. Idaho), Case No. 1:21-cv-00503. 

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Related legal case

Human Rights Def. Ctr. v. Canyon Cty., Idaho