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Judge rules in favor of HRDC in VA jail censorship suit, June 12, 2019.

Judge: SW Va. Regional Jail Authority improperly banned books

The Southwest Virginia Regional Jail Authority violated a nonprofit’s due process rights when it blocked prisoners from accessing books and magazines the nonprofit sent them, Judge James P. Jones ruled in the U.S. District Court in Abingdon last week.

The Human Rights Defense Center, a prisoners’ rights organization, regularly distributes reading material to inmates, covering legal news, current events and inmates’ rights. Over a million copies of its monthly magazines have been delivered to inmates since its founding in 1990.

Although the jail allowed books and other publications to be collected in a common reading room, from which prisoners could request up to two books at a time, the jail authority adopted a new policy in 2016 that banned any books or publications from being delivered without case-by-case preapproval. Prisoners would be required to submit requests for each new magazine.

According to the suit, the authority returned hundreds of magazine issues to the HRDC without clearly stating their policy on why they were being rejected.

Jones found in his ruling that while the jail authority could reasonably ban certain materials from inmates, the policies that prevented prisoners from accessing the HRDC publications were “inconsistently communicated and applied” and that alternate means of delivery would place an undue burden on the HRDC.

The jail authority justified banning most of the publications due to safety concerns, arguing that the staples and glue that make up the Human Rights Defense Center’s publications could endanger the safety of guards or prisoners, posing possible fire hazards or providing materials used for drug or weapon smuggling.

Jones said the jail authority lacked strong evidence to prove that their preapproval policy would actually diminish the cited safety risks, and the lack of a written policy made the system too open to abuse.

“Such a policy,” Jones wrote, “invites arbitrary decisions that are driven by individual officials’ biases and do not bear a rational relationship to legitimate penological interests.”

The authority’s inability to clearly communicate with HRDC was also a violation of their rights to publish material for prisoners, said Jones.

The case will proceed to a jury trial to decide damages in the suit. The HRDC is seeking relief to cover attorney fees.

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