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PLN wins Kansas gift subscriptions case in Tenth Circuit

Topeka Capital-Journal, Jan. 1, 2004.
PLN wins Kansas gift subscriptions case in Tenth Circuit - Topeka Capital-Journal 2004

Published Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Appeals court opens inmate subscriptions case

By Robert Boczkiewicz

Special to The Capital-Journal

DENVER -- A federal appeals court has ordered reopened a case that challenged restrictions on the ability of Kansas prison inmates to obtain books, newspapers and other periodicals.

The 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Tuesday that federal judge G. Thomas VanBebber in Kansas City, Kan., erred last year in upholding the restrictions without conducting a trial and by not considering relevant factors.

The Denver-based appellate judges, in a 3-0 decision, questioned the validity of the restrictions and the Kansas Department of Corrections' basis for them.

The higher court judges, in the 31-page decision, instructed the judge in Kansas to reconsider objections to the restrictions by evaluating evidence from both sides.

Inmates and a national newsletter, Prison Legal News, filed lawsuits against the department seeking to have the restrictions overturned as a violation of the First Amendment.

The higher court judges also ruled that prison authorities must notify any publication if they refuse to deliver it to an inmate, said attorney Bruce Plenk, speaking from his Lawrence office. Plenk represents the inmates and the newsletter.

A publication not delivered then can appeal to the authorities.

The lawsuits' remaining principal objections are to corrections department regulations that prohibit gift subscriptions to inmates and that limit inmates to spending $30 a month. Books and periodical subscriptions often cost more than $30 and the DOC allows inmates to exceed $30 only once every three months for one newspaper subscription. DOC officials contend that the restrictions are necessary for security and behavior management.

The Supreme Court ruled in 1974, in another case, that inmates have a First Amendment right to receive information as long as the right is not inconsistent with legitimate prison objectives.

A former head of the Kansas prison system, Patrick McManus, was a witness for the inmates and the newsletter. He testified in a deposition that the challenged restrictions serve no legitimate prison purpose and may undermine rehabilitation of inmates.

In a similar lawsuit in state court, the Kansas Supreme Court in August upheld the restrictions, but the federal court case is a separate issue.