Skip navigation

California settles First Amendment lawsuit with Prison Legal News

Monterey Herald, Jan. 1, 2007.
California settles First Amendment lawsuit with Prison Legal News - Monterey Herald 2007

Posted on Fri, Apr. 13, 2007

More books for inmates

State agrees to free up access to publications


Herald Staff Writer

California prisoners will soon have greater access to books and periodicals, lawyers for a prison newsletter publisher announced Thursday.

The agreement between Prison Legal News and the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation overhauls mail room policies in all of the state's 33 adult prisons, making them more consistent and doing away with arcane labeling requirements and other restrictions.

"Literally all publishers are benefiting from it," said Paul Wright, executive director of the organization that publishes the newsletter. Book distributors, such as Barnes and Noble and, will have improved distribution inside prisons, he said.

"It's a pretty fundamental First Amendment lawsuit brought on behalf of a nonprofit publisher who provides legal materials to a population that has difficulty receiving that information," said Meghan Lang, a legal assistant who worked on the case.

Corrections department spokesman Bill Sessa called the agreement satisfactory.

"Clearly the settlement reflects the changes that we've agreed to," he said. "Our concern was to protect the security of the institutions as well as the constitutional rights of the inmates."

Sanford Jay Rosen, a San Francisco-based attorney for the publisher who filed the complaint, said the settlement will likely set a positive precedent for prison systems around the country.

"Here the largest prison system in the United States agrees that we should be inside," he said. "We are hopeful this settlement will end CDCR's censorship policies."

Asked if Prison Legal News has had problems with facilities in other regions, Rosen replied, "How many states are in the union? If it's not a problem in a particular state, it has been or probably will be tomorrow."

The agreement lessens bureaucratic hurdles publishers face in getting their newspapers, magazines and other publications to inmate subscribers, such as "approved vendor status" requirements that have varied wildly from prison to prison.

For the first time in years, prisoners will be allowed to receive hardcover books. Corrections officials have maintained that hard covers can be split and re-glued to smuggle drugs or other contraband. Under the new regulations, if an inmate agrees to accept a hardcover book, a corrections officer will remove the cover in front of the inmate and hand him the book's pages.

The lawsuit, which named Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger as a defendant, was filed Thursday in the Northern District of California court, although the agreement was reached in December, Wright said.

The suit was filed, Wright said, so the federal court can help ensure the department's compliance with the settlement.

"We're hoping for the best, but we want to make sure we can enforce it," Wright said.

The corrections department spent more than a year in negotiations with Wright's attorneys hammering out the settlement.

"The fact is that we did not want to go to litigation on this issue," said Sessa.

Wright said Prison Legal News had few troubles when it was first distributed in California prisons in 1990.

The monthly publication featured articles and reprints about court cases and prison law written by freelancers as well as prison inmates.
For unclear reasons, about 2003, inmates all over the state began to have problems receiving their copies. Wright found that other publications experienced similar difficulties and inconsistencies in the system, known for widely varying rules between prisons.

Some prisons, such as the Correctional Training Facility in Soledad, prohibited books and magazines to inmates in administrative segregations, commonly known as "the hole." Wright said. That was unconstitutional, he said, especially considering that some 20,000 California prisoners are in administrative segregation at any given moment.

Other institutions, such as Los Angeles County, Corcoran and Salinas Valley State Prison, had serious problems with certain publications making it from the mail room to any inmate, he said.

"They had some real Rube Goldberg rules where they wouldn't take packages without special labels or if they weighed more than two pounds," Wright said. "Prisons were refusing to deliver our books, saying we weren't an approved vendor. We complained and they ignored us."

Meghan Lang said the department had set up "a variety of unconstitutional barriers" to media.

"As a starting point, every prison has its own mail room policies. But now there will be policies from the top down," Land said.

According to the agreement, the corrections department must order subscriptions to Prison Legal News for all of its more than 100 prison libraries.

Wright said he remains "cautiously optimistic" that the department will begin compliance with its agreement soon.

"If not, we'll be back in court," he said.