St. Joseph County jail settles lawsuit, to allow inmates access to educational literature
County to pay $30,000 to Human Rights Defense Center
SOUTH BEND — County officials this week settled a lawsuit with a nonprofit advocacy group who claimed the St. Joseph County jail unconstitutionally prevented inmates from receiving educational magazines.
County commissioners Wednesday unanimously voted to pay the Human Rights Defense Center $30,000 in exchange for the group to drop a federal lawsuit against St. Joseph County Sheriff Bill Redman. The agreement also stipulates the jail will not block HDRC from distributing future periodicals to inmates, even if the material was not specifically requested.
In a written statement, a spokesman for the St. Joseph County Police Department said jail policy had banned periodicals from going to inmates who had not directly requested them due to past instances of the materials being "laced or soaked with narcotics." Court records also show jail staff denied some of the magazines from being distributed because they contained staples.
Though the jail holds its policy is constitutional, county officials decided it made more sense to settle the case and to adjust its policies than fight the issue in court. Moving forward, educational periodicals will more easily make their way to inmates, according to Troy Warner, an attorney for the St. Joseph County Police Department.
"We try and balance our inmates' First Amendment right to access information with the need to keep our jail free from incoming mail laced with narcotics or other drugs," Warner said in written statement. "There is some legal ambiguity in this matter and we believe that our established periodical policy is constitutional. However, due to expected costs of protracted litigation, the periodical's extensive litigation record on this matter, we reevaluated our policies and made common sense changes in both staple policy and subscription requirement."
The HRDC's website says the organization promotes advocacy and education efforts for incarcerated people. Part of that outreach is sending publications about legal news to people who are in jail.
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Per court documents, the HRDC attempted to send back issues of two of its publications — "Prison Legal News" and "Criminal Legal News" — to 10 people being held in the St. Joseph County Jail in July 2021. The lawsuit says the inmates didn't request the publications, but all 10 inmates were charged with "serious offenses and could likely use the information provided in the publications."
Documents attached to the lawsuit show jail staff denied the publications from reaching the inmates because the inmates did not have specific subscriptions and the issues sent were not the most recent issues of the publication.
The HRDC then signed up the inmates for subscriptions and sent them the Aug. 2021 issue, however, the jail still confiscated the publications because they had staples in them, the lawsuit says. The HRDC tried to send a total of 16 inmates issues of their Sept. 2021, April 2022 and May 2022 publications — all of which were rejected due to the subscriptions not being paid or there being staples in the periodicals.
The HRDC's suit claimed representatives for St. Joseph County police or jail never spoke to the nonprofit about the situation or ways to get the literature to people in the jail. In June, the HRDC filed its lawsuit with legal representation by the ACLU of Indiana.
Attorneys for the HRDC did not immediately respond to an interview request Thursday. The nonprofit has filed numerous lawsuits against jails and prison systems around the country over access to educational material.
In addition to the $30,000 payment, the settlement requires the jail to change its policies to allow the HRDC to send similar types of publications in the future. However, the agreement does not require the county to admit liability.
Warner said in a written statement that inmates will not be required to have a subscription to receive legal and criminal defense periodicals. Jail staff will also removal staples as necessary, but still give inmates access to the works.
The agreement with the HRDC this week marks the fourth time in two years county officials have settled a lawsuit involving the jail for more than $10,000. In 2021, two inmates received payments after they were kept in the jail longer than they should have been. In March 2022, a nurse who worked at the jail received $50,000 after she was fired over a social media post.