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PLN sues Virginia DOC over censorship, due process issues

Associated Press, Jan. 1, 2009.
PLN sues Virginia DOC over censorship, due process issues - Associated Press 2009

Last updated October 8, 2009 1:15 p.m. PT
Prison magazine sues Va., alleges censorship


RICHMOND, Va. -- Virginia prison officials have unconstitutionally restricted inmates from receiving a magazine that reports on prisoner rights and criminal justice issues, the publication claims in a lawsuit filed Thursday.

Prison Legal News filed the lawsuit against Gene M. Johnson, director of the state Department of Corrections, and other prison officials and employees in federal court in Charlottesville.

The complaint charges that Virginia inmates have been denied access to 14 issues of the monthly Prison Legal News since 2007. Prison Legal News also is challenging policies that prohibit gift subscriptions and materials that inform inmates how to subscribe to the magazine or buy books from the nonprofit organization.

Magazine officials claim the policies violate their free-speech and due process rights and those of the prisoners. The magazine is seeking a court order allowing the publication in Virginia prisons along with unspecified "nominal" monetary damages.

"Although prisoners lose many of their constitutional rights when they are incarcerated, the First Amendment does not end at the prison door," said Jeffrey Fogel, attorney for the magazine.

David Clementson, a spokesman for state Attorney General Bill Mims, said the office does not comment on pending litigation.

Prison Legal News editor Paul Wright said the magazine has successfully challenged censorship efforts in several other state prison systems, but Virginia is the only state that has claimed the articles threaten prison security. The state has not explained its reasoning, the plaintiffs say.

"Prison officials just don't like us because we're telling prisoners what their rights are and how to vindicate their rights through the legal system," Wright said in a telephone interview.

He said Virginia prison officials also have claimed the magazine's articles cast law enforcement in a negative light.

"The news is what it is," Wright said. "We don't make it up. We're not an inflammatory publication."

The headline on the lead story in the October issue says "Texas Prisoners Still Dying in Houston Jail, Among Other Problems." A front-page listing of stories found on the inside pages includes "Torture in US Prisons," "Maine Prison Turmoil," "Guantanamo Not Closing," "Children Tasered in Florida" and "Habeas Hints" - an advice column for inmates considering acting as their own attorney.

Wright said the magazine has had subscribers in Virginia prisons since its inception in 1990 but has only run into censorship problems in the last couple of years. The Seattle, Wash.-based magazine, which claims almost 7,000 subscribers nationwide, is a project of the Human Rights Defense Center.

[This article includes a minor correction by PLN staff]

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