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Tenth Circuit hears PLN's appeal to Kansas DOC gift subscription ban

Lawrence Journal-World, Jan. 1, 2004.
Tenth Circuit hears PLN's appeal to Kansas DOC gift subscription ban - Lawrence Journal-World 2004

Court mulls limits on inmate subscriptions

By John Hanna - Associated Press Writer

The Lawrence Journal-World, Thursday, October 7, 2004

Topeka -- A state policy restricting prison inmates' newspaper, magazine and newsletter subscriptions violates their free speech rights and isolates them from the outside, an attorney told a federal appeals court Wednesday.

Bruce Plenk, of Lawrence, representing two former inmates and Prison Legal News, a Seattle-based monthly newsletter, asked a three-judge panel of the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to overturn a ban on gift subscriptions for inmates and rules that prevent some inmates from receiving any subscriptions.

Plenk argued the Department of Corrections' policy prevents inmates from exercising their right to communicate with people outside prisons -- such as Prison Legal News. Also, he said, the department has violated the newsletter's rights by failing to notifying it that inmates aren't receiving issues mailed to them and by not giving the newsletter a chance to protest at a formal hearing.

He said that the policy restricted inmates' access to information and that Kansas appeared to be the only state banning gift subscriptions in its prisons.

"We think this policy is designed to make inmates dumb and dumber," he told the appeals panel. The 10th Circuit normally sits in Denver but had a special, daylong session at Washburn University's law school.

The state contends its policy helps control the flow of property to inmates, control contraband and provide incentives for inmates to remain on good behavior.

"Corrections officials need to control every piece of property that comes into a facility," Tim Madden, the department's senior counsel, said after the court hearing.

The 10th Circuit is considering three cases, one filed by Prison Legal News in 2002, and separate cases filed in 2000 and 2001 by Kris Zimmerman and Joseph E. Jacklovich Sr., who were both inmates at the Hutchinson Correctional Facility but were released earlier this year.

Zimmerman and Jacklovich sued after the Hutchinson prison confiscated hometown newspapers and magazines, such as Bee Culture for Zimmerman and Easy Rider for Jacklovich. Zimmerman wants the state to pay him for the publications it seized; Jacklovich is seeking $200,000 in damages.

Last year, U.S. Senior District Judge G. Thomas VanBebber sided with the state, dismissing all three cases before a trial. Also, in a separate case in August, the Kansas Supreme Court upheld department policy.

Plenk and Prison Legal News argue that rulings in recent years by two other federal appeals courts suggest Kansas' policies cannot stand. The newsletter has filed about 20 lawsuits since its formation in 1990, many of them designed to ensure that inmates have access to the publication.

Since 1986, the Kansas department has required all inmates to purchase subscriptions through their prison bank accounts. It also has rules preventing inmates who have not kept a clean disciplinary record from purchasing books or subscriptions, other than religious texts, and restricting other inmates to spending $30 a month, with some exceptions.

Prison Legal News has about 4,000 subscribers, said Paul Wright, its editor, who attended the hearing. Wright began editing the newsletter while serving a murder sentence in Washington state but was released last year.