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PLN prevails in appeal of non-subscription bulk mail suit against WA DOC

National Law Journal, Jan. 1, 2005.
PLN prevails in appeal of non-subscription bulk mail suit against WA DOC - National Law Journal 2005

National Law Journal

February 14, 2005

Nonsubscription bulk mail ban unconstitutional


The state of Washington Department of Corrections' ban on inmates' receipt of nonsubscription bulk mail and catalogs was unconstitutional in a suit brought by the publication, Prison Legal News, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals held on Feb. 1. Prison Legal News v. Lehman, No. 03-35608.

Prison Legal News, a Washington non-profit corporation publishing legal news of interest to prison inmates, sued Joseph Lehman and various other Washington State prison officials under 42 U.S.C. 1983, arguing that the Washington Department of Corrections' ban on prisoners receiving nonsubscription bulk mail and catalogs violated its First and 14th amendment rights. The prison officials countered that the ban decreased the likelihood of incoming contraband, reduced mailroom work and helped decrease clutter in the cells, thus reducing the chance of fires and increasing the efficiency of cell searches. A district court granted summary judgment to the publication on its First Amendment claim, granted the prison officials' motion for summary judgment on their qualified immunity claim on that issue, but denied the officials' qualified immunity claim on the issue of prison restrictions on third-party legal materials. Both sides appealed.

Affirming on all issues, the 9th Circuit held that the prison ban was not rationally related to a legitimate penological interest. Applying the four-pronged test articulated by the U.S. Supreme Court in Turner v. Safley, the 9th Circuit followed its previous holdings on subscription bulk mail and applied it to nonsubscription bulk mail in the instant case. The court distinguished the case from U.S. Supreme Court precedent upholding a ban on prison junk mail because Prison Legal News mail-while bulk mail-was sent in response to specific requests by each prisoner. Rejecting the officials' argument on reducing contraband, the court said, "[w]e believe it is far more likely that contraband would be contained in first class mail rather than in bulk mail."