Censorship suit filed against jail in Virginia for rejecting PLN publications
Regional Jail Faces Lawsuit Over Change In Inmate Mail Policy
Posted: September 16, 2015
By ONOFRIO CASTIGLIA
The Winchester Star
Prison Legal News — a monthly magazine published by the Human Rights Defense Center, a Florida-based nonprofit group — filed a lawsuit against the Regional Jail in U.S. Federal Court for the Western District of Virginia in Harrisonburg on Friday.
The lawsuit — which demands a jury trial and seeks “damages” — names the Northwestern Regional Jail Authority, Superintendent James Whitley and Capt. Clay Corbin as defendants.
A complaint filed with the suit states that the facility — which serves Winchester and Frederick, Clarke and Fauquier counties — has “adopted and implemented mail policies that unconstitutionally prohibit delivery of publications to prisoners in their custody.”
It also states that the senders of “censored mail” do not receive “an opportunity to challenge the censorship as required by the Constitution.”
These complaints refer to a recent policy put in place at the jail to combat drugs and other contraband from getting in through the mail.
The Regional Jail houses inmates awaiting court proceedings, or serving sentences of up to 18 months. It houses nearly 700 inmates and employs 148 sworn officers and 54 civilian employees.
As previously reported by The Star, inmates have had friends and family use books and magazines to smuggle in drugs, which can be put under the lining of a book, sewed into the spine, or, if liquid, dropped onto the pages.
Strip-searches and drug tests are used as a primary defense against drugs coming in. Also, mail coming into the jail is thoroughly dissected before it reaches an inmate.
Despite these and other extensive efforts, drugs still get into the jail.
In February 2014, Whitley sent a memo to staff and inmates stating that books and magazines would no longer be allowed to come through the mail from any source, including publishers and distribution centers.
All reading material allowed is marked as property of the jail, and is provided on a library cart, according to the memo.
“Religious books approved by the chaplain and educational books approved by the Captain of Security or designee will still be allowed,” the memo states. “Those items will be clearly marked as approved so as not to create confusion with staff.”
The memo cites “contraband control,” as the reason for the policy change.
In April 2014, Corbin sent a follow-up memo stating that all books and magazines throughout the jail would be collected and placed in a property room to be inventoried and issued via the library cart.
Inmates can have one book at a time, that memo states. The library cart contains five magazines at a time, which can only be read in the dayroom, outside of cells.
The complaint filed in the suit states that from “October 2014 to present, [Prison Legal News] has sent at least one hundred and seventy issues of its monthly journal to prisoners at NRADC.”
“On information and belief, each month the following number of individually addressed issues of [PLN] were not delivered to intended recipients incarcerated at NRADC at the time it arrived in the mail.”
The complaint also states that from October 2014 to the present, Prison Legal News sent “at least” 16 copies of “The Habeas Citebook: Ineffective Assistance of Counsel” to inmates at the jail.
Those books “were subsequently censored by NRADC staff persons,” according to the complaint, which calls that “censorship” a constitutional violation. “Defendants do not have a legitimate penological reason for their blanket ban on delivery of publications to prisoners via the U.S. Mail.”
Alex Friedmann, associate director of the Human Rights Defense Center and managing editor of PLN, declined to comment on the group’s reasons for filing the suit, or what exactly is being sought. He said more information would be released in several days.
“This is just the start of the case,” Friedmann said.
Whitley said Friday that neither he nor other jail officials had been served with a summons, though one was filed on Friday. A hearing has not yet been scheduled in the case.
He said the jail purchases magazine subscriptions and then makes those magazines available to inmates.
“It may not be exactly what they want,” Whitley said.
The lawsuit demands a jury trial, and seeks “punitive,” “nominal,” and “compensatory” damages, as well as costs, though no specific amounts are listed.
“[Prison Legal News] is entitled to declaratory relief as well as injunctive relief prohibiting Defendants from refusing to deliver publications and correspondence from Plaintiff and other senders without any legal justification, and prohibiting Defendants from censoring mail without due process of law.”