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PLN wins appeals court ruling over WA bulk mail, catalogs and due process

Seattle Times, Jan. 1, 2005.
PLN wins appeals court ruling over WA bulk mail, catalogs and due process - Seattle Times 2005

Thursday, February 03, 2005, 12:00 a.m. Pacific

State prison inmates prevail in case over bulk-mail rules

By Michael Ko

Seattle Times staff reporter

The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals this week reaffirmed a 2003 federal court decision that said it's unconstitutional for the Washington State Department of Corrections to throw away an inmate's mail simply because it was sent by bulk rate or because it offers something for sale.

Jesse Wing, the Seattle attorney who represents the Prison Legal News, which filed the original lawsuit in 2001, said he believes the ruling will force prisons to deliver bulk mail to inmates from religious, financial and political organizations, as long as they have some kind of relationship with that organization.

The prison still can ban any materials that contain inappropriate content, such as pornography, hate speech or how to commit a crime.
Prison Legal News (PLN) is a Seattle-based monthly publication started by Paul Wright, a former inmate at the Monroe Correctional Complex.

He finished a 17-year sentence for murder in December 2003.

Wright still edits the PLN, which has about 3,000 subscribers nationwide and features the writings of many prisoners.

In the suit, PLN claimed that the prison system was violating its First Amendment right to distribute political speech.

Prison staffers, the suit contended, were throwing away PLN subscription-renewal notices and notices for supplemental materials, such as book-order forms and surveys.

Prisons never threw out actual issues of the PLN, but the PLN argued that if its subscribers didn't get supplementary materials or didn't know when to renew, this could have the same effect as censorship.

In 2003, the U.S. District Court in Seattle agreed. The Department of Corrections appealed. The 9th Circuit Court, which has jurisdiction over nine states including Washington, rejected the appeal Tuesday.

Shannon Inglis, the Department of Corrections' attorney, argued before the appeals court that allowing bulk mail and catalogs would mean more work for the prison's mailroom staff and increased opportunities for contraband. That's the primary reason the department in 1999 banned all catalogs and nonsubscription bulk mail from its prisons.

But in its opinion, the appeals court ruled that such mail "is not rationally related to a legitimate penological interest and is therefore unconstitutional."

The court also said contraband was more likely to be stored in first-class mail than bulk mail.

Wing argued that some of the things that had been thrown away because they were sent at bulk rates included U.S. Justice Department papers on prison conditions and prison budgets, mailings from schools about correspondence courses and brochures from political parties.

"This is not about prisoners getting Victoria's Secret catalogs. ... We're not talking about junk mail," Wing said. "We're talking about educating prisoners and getting them material from places they've requested mail from. We want prisoners to read, right?"

PLN had asked for damages, but the court denied that request.