Prisoner-rights group sues over refusal of its publications

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Prison Legal News, a prisoner-rights group that publishes materials for inmates, has sued in federal court, contending that a California county and sheriff violated the First Amendment by censoring PLN’s publications.

PLN publishes a monthly journal, Prison Legal News, which features commentary on court rulings, prison issues and other criminal-justice matters. The group alleges that since April 2010, Sacramento County Sheriff Scott R. Jones and other jail officials have refused to deliver its journal and related materials at Sacramento County Main Jail and the Rio Cosumnes Correctional Center.

Its complaint in Prison Legal News v. County of Sacramento, filed April 5, alleges that the defendants’ conduct “violates the First Amendment by censoring these expressive activities and has a chilling effect on future speech and expression directed at prisoners confined there.”

According to the complaint, mailed copies of the journal came back to PLN with a “return to sender” stamp that said “no staples.”

“They claim it is because we have staples, but we have had staples since we started publishing in 1990 and they didn’t start censoring us until last year,” said Prison Legal News Editor Paul Wright.

Efforts to reach jail officials for comment were unsuccessful until April 11, when Sheriff’s Adjutant Sgt. Tim Curran replied by e-mail: “We will not comment on any ongoing or pending lawsuits involving our department.”

Wright said that before April 2010, “we’d been able to deliver our materials to prisoners in Sacramento County without a problem, but there’s been no explanation for the change in policy.”

Prisoners “have a right under the First Amendment to receive reading material, and publishers such as PLN also have a First Amendment right to send our publications to prisoners,” he said. “County officials should not be in the business of unconstitutional censorship or deciding what people can and cannot read.”

The lawsuit also alleges that defendants have violated PLN’s due-process and equal-protection rights under the 14th Amendment, and the free-expression clause of the California Constitution.

“Jail officials do not have the right to censor books and magazines simply because they dislike the publisher,” said lead counsel Sanford Jay Rosen of the San Francisco-based law firm of Rosen, Bien & Galvan. “The actions of the jail officials are not only unconstitutional, but make it more difficult for prisoners to receive information that can assist them in making a successful transition to society after they are released from custody.”