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Court awards $802,176 in fees and costs against Oregon county in PLN censorship suit

Prison Legal News, Jan. 1, 2014.
Press release - Court awards $802,176 in fees and costs against Oregon county in PLN censorship suit 2014

PRESS RELEASE

Human Rights Defense Center
For Immediate Release

March 24, 2014


Federal Court Awards $802,176 in Fees, Costs Against Columbia County
in Jail Censorship Case

PORTLAND, OR – Today, the U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon ordered Columbia County to pay $763,803.45 in attorney’s fees and $38,373.01 in costs to a prisoners’ rights publication in a lawsuit over illegal censorship of mail at the Columbia County Jail.

Prison Legal News (PLN), a non-profit monthly publication that covers criminal justice-related issues and a project of the Human Rights Defense Center, filed suit against Columbia County and Sheriff Jeff Dickerson in January 2012 after jail employees censored PLN’s publication and letters mailed to detainees. Further, the Jail refused to provide PLN with notice or an opportunity to appeal the censorship of PLN’s correspondence.

The Columbia County Jail rejected PLN’s publication and letters pursuant to its own policy that only allowed prisoners to send and receive mail in the form of postcards. Further, the Jail did not allow detainees to receive magazines. In April 2013, following a trial, the Court ruled in favor of PLN and prohibited Columbia County from enforcing its policy permanently – the first time that a jail’s postcard-only policy has been struck down as unconstitutional following a trial on the merits.

Lead counsel for PLN, Jesse Wing, praised the Court for recognizing that PLN’s success broadly advanced the public interest and the rights of many people: “In his ruling today, Judge Michael H. Simon remarked that, ‘This action brought specific injunctive relief not only to PLN but also to all inmates at the Jail and their family and friends and others who wish to correspond with them....’” Wing also noted, “the great success in this case will benefit many other people in the future because the Court’s injunction is permanent.”

During the litigation the county admitted “that inmates have a First Amendment right to receive magazines and inmates and their correspondents have a Fourteenth Amendment right to procedural due process.” However, the Jail defended its postcard-only policy and claimed there was no official policy banning magazines at the facility.

Following the trial, the Court found that the Jail’s claimed reasons for adopting the postcard-only policy – preventing the introduction of contraband and saving time during mail inspection – were not supported by the evidence.

In its March 24, 2014 order awarding attorney’s fees and costs, the Court rejected the county’s arguments and objections to the award. Columbia County has appealed the Court’s judgment and injunction prohibiting enforcement of the Jail’s postcard-only policy, and the appeal remains pending before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

“The Court’s award of over $802,000 in attorney’s fees and expenses in this case represents the cost of failing to comply with the Constitution of the United States,” said PLN editor Paul Wright. “When county officials willingly violate the Constitution and refuse to remedy those violations, instead choosing to engage in protracted litigation, ultimately there is a greater cost to the taxpayers.”

PLN was ably represented by Jesse Wing and Katie Chamberlain with the Seattle law firm of MacDonald Hoague & Bayless; by the late Marc D. Blackman with the Portland law firm of Ransom Blackman, LLP, who passed away on January 1, 2014; and by Human Rights Defense Center general counsel Lance Weber. The case is Prison Legal News v. Columbia County, U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon, Case No. 3:12-cv-00071-SI.


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The Human Rights Defense Center, founded in 1990 and based in Lake Worth, Florida, is a non-profit organization dedicated to protecting human rights in U.S. detention facilities. HRDC publishes Prison Legal News (PLN), a monthly magazine that includes reports, reviews and analysis of court rulings and news related to prisoners’ rights and criminal justice issues. PLN has around 9,000 subscribers nationwide and operates a website (www.prisonlegalnews.org) that includes a comprehensive database of prison and jail-related articles, news reports, court rulings, verdicts, settlements and related documents.


For further information, please contact:

Paul Wright, Editor
Prison Legal News
(561) 360-2523 (office)
(802) 275-8594 (cell)
pwright@prisonlegalnews.org

Jesse Wing, Attorney
MacDonald Hoague & Bayless
705 Second Avenue, Suite 1500
Seattle, WA 98104
(206) 622-1604 (office)
jessew@mhb.com