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"Sheriff vs. Editor": PLN's suit against the Sacramento County Jail

News Review, April 14, 2011.
"Sheriff vs. Editor": PLN's suit against the Sacramento County Jail - News Review 2011

Sheriff vs. editor

By Cosmo Garvin

This article was published on 04.14.11.

The Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department gets sued, a lot. Perhaps that’s to be expected. But Bites wasn’t expecting the case that came over the transom last week, accusing the sheriff of censorship at the Sacramento County Main Jail.

The plaintiff is Paul Wright, editor of the Prison Legal News, based in Vermont. PLN is, as the name suggests, chock-full of articles about the legal rights and living conditions of inmates in jails and prisons around the country.

It’s one of the most interesting magazines Bites has read in a while. The lead story in this month’s issue is a muckraking investigation into telephone contracts inside prisons and jails, and how corrections agencies often get big kickbacks from the telecom companies they do business with.

Another piece was titled "Heat ray device, rejected by military, to be tested on Los Angeles County jail prisoners." Yikes.

There’s very little art within those 56 pages, just a few ads for products like Smith’s Guide to Habeas Corpus Relief and the latest Cold Crib catalog.

Prison Legal News has been publishing for 21 years, and for about 20 of those years, it has been delivering to inmates at the Sacramento County jail. Wright figures there are about two dozen subscribers in the Sacramento County jail at any time—each is charged $24 a year for the monthly magazine.

But Wright has some unhappy customers on his hands, because the Sacramento County jailers have for the past year been refusing to deliver PLN to jail subscribers, and have instead been sending the issues back.

"We tried for a long time to figure out what the problem is," Wright told Bites. The only official explanation he’s gotten is on some of the issues which come back with the message "no staples" written on the envelope. Like most magazines, PLN comes with two small staples binding the pages together. Bites supposes Sacramento jail officials are worried they might be fashioned into some sort of weapon.

But Wright has another explanation for the ban. "If you’re a jailer, you don’t necessarily want people in your jail to know about their rights, or about how to sue you," he said.

Speaking by phone from the PLN office in Vermont, Wright rattled off several articles that have been published in his magazine about the Sac County Main Jail. Stories about jail suicides, excessive force and $15 million in penalties paid by the county a few years back when a judge found the sheriff’s strip-search practices unconstitutional.

In their lawsuit filed in federal court on April 5, PLN says they are being censored, and demand that the sheriff lift the ban and that the county pay damages.

It’s possible. Last year in Atlanta, the Fulton County Jail had to pay PLN $30,000 for 116 copies of the magazine that weren’t delivered because of county rules against nonreligious reading material for inmates. A couple years back, the California state prison system had to settle another First Amendment complaint with PLN.

Sacramento jail officials wouldn’t comment on the particulars of the lawsuit. But sheriff spokesman Jason Ramos told Bites, "Generally speaking, staples would constitute contraband," along with paper clips and other metal items.

But Wright says the staples have never been an issue before, nor is it an issue for PLN’s subscribers in places like Pelican Bay and Corcoran prisons.

"Somehow Sacramento County jail inmates are more savvy and dangerous than these inmates in maximum-security prisons?"

Maybe. Or maybe someone working the jail mailroom just decided they didn’t like PLN’s content. Either way, that’s one more lawsuit for the sheriff.

[this article includes a correction by PLN]

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