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HRDC Sues Wyoming Jail for Unlawful Censorship

by Douglas Ankney

On August 19, 2022, the Human Rights Defense Center (HRDC), publisher of Prison Legal News (PLN) and Criminal Legal News (CLN), filed suit in federal court for the District of Wyoming, accusing Park County Detention Center Administrator Joseph D. Torczon and Sheriff Scott Steward of unlawfully censoring the non-profit’s publications, violating both its civil rights and those of jail detainees under 42 U.S.C. § 1983.

Jail policy expressly forbids detainees from receiving periodicals. Books are allowed with pre-approval, but it’s unclear if that is ever granted. Even those seeking to conduct legal research for their cases are forced to submit requests for specific books in writing to the County Attorney.

In July 2021, jail staff denied a detainee permission to order books from HRDC. Attempting to ferret out policy reasons for this, HRDC sent six separate mailings to each of ten detainees containing: (1) the November 2020 issues of CLN and PLN; (2) the book Protecting Your Health and Safety; (3) the Prisoners’ Guerilla Handbook; (4) the court opinion in Clement v. Cal. Dep’t of Corr., 364 F.3d 1148 (9th Cir. 2004), voiding a California ban on prisoner mail containing material downloaded from the internet; and (5) a brochure of HRDC publications.

In August 2021, Torczon — via telephone — informed HRDC that the magazines were not permitted because they contained staples. The books were not permitted because they were not preapproved, he added. None of the mailings was returned.

HRDC sent a follow-up letter to each detainee with a self-addressed and stamped envelope, requesting confirmation of receipt of the mailings. Nine of these letters were returned with a message stamped on the envelopes stating simply: “Rejected, violates policy of Park County Jail.”

HRDC then filed suit, alleging that Defendants’ policies and practices constitute a de facto ban on its publications and materials, in violation of the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment. Further, they fail to give publishers adequate notice of censorship and an opportunity to be heard, in violation of the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

As Plaintiff, HRDC seeks: (1) a declaration that Defendants’ policies and practices violate the federal constitution; (2) an injunction ordering Defendants to cease censorship and denial of publications and provide HRDC and other mailers with adequate notice of reasons for rejection of mail, along with an opportunity to be heard; (3) nominal damages; (4) compensatory damages in an amount to be proven at trial; (5) punitive damages in an amount to be proven at trial; and (6) costs, including reasonable attorneys’ fees.

A leading advocate for prisoner rights, HRDC has published PLN since 1990 and CLN since 2017. It is represented by attorneys Samuel R. Yemington of Holland & Hart LLP in Cheyenne and Laura K. Granier and Joshua M. Halen of the firm’s office in Reno, Nevada. HRDC staff attorneys are also at work on the case, including  Hara Fishbein. See: Human Rights Def. Ctr. v. Steward, USDC (D. Wyo.), Case No. 1:22-cv-00182. 

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