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Jail is permanently enjoined from blocking books, magazines

Virginia Lawyer Weekly, April 15, 2020.

A prisoners’ rights group whose First Amendment rights were violated by a jail policy that allowed inmates to receive only preapproved books, and prohibited them from receiving magazines, is entitled to a permanent injunction governing the delivery of publications and a process to appeal denials.


In this suit by a prisoners’ rights organization against a jail authority and its superintendent under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, This court previously held that the Southwest Virginia Regional Jail Authority had violated the First Amendment rights of the Human Rights Defense Center, or HRDC, by prohibiting inmates from receiving books except those preapproved by the jail authority and prohibiting inmates from receiving any magazines.

This court further held that the jail authority and Superintendent Stephen Clear had violated HRDC’s due process rights under the 14th Amendment by rejecting or confiscating HRDC’s mailings to prisoners without providing adequate notice of the reason for the rejection and an opportunity for HRDC to appeal the decision.

Earlier in the case, the court had entered a preliminary injunction, which remains in effect. Following the entry of summary judgment, the parties agreed to an amount of compensatory damages, and the plaintiff renewed its request for a permanent injunction.


First, “it is well established that the loss of First Amendment freedoms, for even minimal periods of time, unquestionably constitutes irreparable injury.” Second, “monetary damages are inadequate to compensate for the loss of First Amendment freedoms.”

Third, the record reveals no indication that the proposed injunction would result in any hardship to the defendants, who have already been complying with a similar preliminary injunction for more than a year and a half. Likewise, there is no evidence showing any significant burden or safety issue related to delivery of magazines since the entry of the preliminary injunction. Finally the defendants have not offered any evidence to show that the proposed injunction is likely to adversely affect any interest of the public.

The defendants appear to argue that their voluntary change in policy moots any need for an injunction. In order for the defendants’ voluntary cessation to moot the request for an injunction, the defendants would have to show that “it is absolutely clear the allegedly wrongful behavior could not reasonably be expected to recur.”

The court finds the defendants’ arguments unpersuasive, primarily because the anticipated policy and procedural changes have not yet been implemented. Moreover, even if they are implemented in short order, the defendants retain the right to change them at any time. The expected changes described by Clear thus do not provide adequate protection of HRDC’s rights at the present time.

The defendants also assert that the $1,500 in compensatory damages to which they have agreed, along with an as-yet-undetermined award of attorneys’ fees and costs in this case and the prospect of future litigation costs, provide adequate deterrence to prevent them from infringing HRDC’s rights in the same way in the future. Of this, too, the court is unpersuaded. While these litigation-related expenses surely do provide some deterrent effect, the court finds that a clear directive is needed to ensure that HRDC’s rights are not violated again in the future.

The defendants argue that the requested relief is overly broad and insufficiently specific, essentially directing them to follow the law. The court disagrees.

The defendants also complain that HRDC’s proposed injunction “places an undue burden on jail officials to determine when a sender ‘receives’ notice of a rejection.” That concern can be remedied by starting the appeal period on the date the jail authority sends the confiscation notice and extending the length of the appeal period beyond 14 calendar days to account for potential delays in mail delivery.

Finally, the defendants argue that the proposed injunction does not comply with the Prison Litigation Reform Act, or PLRA. Because this suit was not brought by a prisoner, but rather by HRDC to vindicate its own constitutional rights, any injunction entered is not required to comply with the PLRA. Even if the PLRA did apply here, the court says that it would find that the injunction to be entered does satisfy its requirements, as it is no broader than necessary to prevent the further violation of HRDC’s constitutional rights.

Plaintiff’s motion for a permanent injunction granted.

Human Rights Defense Center v. Southwest Virginia Regional Jail Authority, Case No. 18-cv-00013, March 25, 2020. WDVA at Abingdon (Jones). VLW 020-3-169. 11 pp.

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