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PLN wins Washington bulk mail censorship suit

Seattle Times, Jan. 1, 2003.
PLN wins Washington bulk mail censorship suit - Seattle Times 2003

Seattle Times

July 2, 2003

Inmates have right to get bulk mail, judge rules

Michael Ko; Seattle Times staff reporter

In a victory for a prisoner-produced newspaper that has battled the state over First Amendment issues, a federal judge has ruled that state prison inmates must be allowed to receive bulk mailings and catalogs, overturning a long-standing Department of Corrections ban.

"The ruling is very expansive in that it requires the (Corrections Department) to allow ... all mail that is sent standard rate," said Jesse Wing, a lawyer representing the Prison Legal News, which sued the state in November 2001. "Our focus was primarily on core First Amendment communications."

The Prison Legal News had alleged in U.S. District Court that the Corrections Department was violating the paper's right to distribute political speech. Mailroom handlers at prisons, the suit contended, were throwing away subscription-renewal postcards, book-order forms and other notices, often mailed to the paper's readers at bulk, or third-class, rates.

The newspaper is a Seattle-based nonprofit monthly, edited by an inmate at the Monroe Correctional Complex. It is distributed to about 3,000 subscribers.

While the paper itself was not being censored, Wing argued that if the recipients didn't get supplementary materials, or didn't know when to renew their subscriptions, it could have the effect of censoring the paper. The prison was also failing to deliver notices from financial and religious organizations and political mail from Amnesty International or the Democratic and Republican parties, the suit contended.

Department of Corrections Deputy Secretary Eldon Vail said yesterday that the ruling could increase opportunities for contraband, create a paper mess and tie up staff with extra work.

Judge Robert Lasnik's order does not affect the DOC's authority to censor certain material. Inmates still may not receive mail that contains pornography, hate speech or is about crime.

"There (are) not a lot of companies sending notices of aluminum siding to inmates," Wing said. "This ruling isn't about junk mail. This ruling is protecting the rights of many, many publishers of magazines and books to convey important political and social ideas to inmates, despite their being incarcerated."