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PLN files censorship suit against Virginia Dept. of Corrections

Prison Legal News, Jan. 1, 2009.
Press release - PLN files censorship suit against Virginia Dept. of Corrections 2009


Prison Legal News – For Immediate Release

October 8, 2009


Richmond, VA – Prison Legal News (PLN), a non-profit monthly publication that reports on criminal justice-related issues, filed suit today in U.S. District Court against Gene M. Johnson, director of the Virginia Department of Corrections (VDOC), and other prison officials. PLN contends that the VDOC violated its rights under the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution by censoring magazines and books sent to Virginia prisoners.

According to PLN’s complaint, the VDOC has regularly censored PLN’s monthly publication, claiming that it is "detrimental to the security, good order, discipline of the facility, or offender rehabilitative efforts or the safety or health of offenders, staff or others," or because it "presents information geared toward a negative perception of law enforcement." However, VDOC officials have provided no explanation as to why PLN’s coverage of criminal justice issues is considered detrimental to security or rehabilitation, or casts law enforcement in a negative light.

The VDOC’s censorship policy does not provide for timely and adequate notice that allows publishers, including PLN, to challenge such censorship. Further, the VDOC does not permit prisoners’ families or friends to purchase books or magazine subscriptions for prisoners. PLN’s lawsuit notes that Virginia prisoners, "many of whom are indigent, may not receive purchases on their behalf by family members, friends, or charitable organizations."

VDOC prisoners must obtain permission from prison officials before ordering, subscribing to or receiving publications. However, the VDOC has prohibited prisoners from receiving correspondence from PLN that contains information about magazine subscriptions, renewals and book sales. PLN contends that these policies "serve no neutral, legitimate, penological purpose," and therefore infringe upon its rights.

"Prisoners are adults and should not be treated as children by the VDOC by requiring approval by prison officials before prisoners can order legal and self-help materials," stated PLN General Counsel Dan Manville.

"Although prisoners lose many of their constitutional rights when they are incarcerated, the First Amendment does not end at the prison door," noted attorney Jeffrey Fogel, who represents PLN. "The Virginia Department of Corrections has censored numerous issues of Prison Legal News on the flimsiest of grounds. Moreover, the Department’s procedures do not comply with the law, which requires a meaningful opportunity for a publisher to challenge censorship decisions."

"We have made good faith efforts to communicate with the VDOC to resolve these problems," added PLN editor Paul Wright, "but those efforts have been unsuccessful. PLN has a well-established right under the First Amendment to send our magazine and books to prisoners, and we have filed suit to enforce that right."

PLN is seeking declaratory and injunctive relief as well as monetary damages. The case is Prison Legal News v. Johnson, et al., U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia, Case No. 3:09-cv-00068. PLN is represented by attorneys Jeffrey E. Fogel and Steven D. Rosenfield in Charlottesville, and by PLN General Counsel Dan E. Manville in Ferndale, Michigan.

Prison Legal News (PLN), founded in 1990 and based in Seattle, Washington, is a non-profit organization dedicated to protecting human rights in U.S. detention facilities. PLN publishes a monthly magazine that includes reports, reviews and analysis of court rulings and news related to prisoners' rights and criminal justice issues. PLN has almost 7,000 subscribers nationwide and operates a website ( that includes a comprehensive database of prison and jail-related articles, news reports, court rulings, verdicts, settlements and related documents. PLN is a project of the Human Rights Defense Center.

For further information, please contact:

Paul Wright
Prison Legal News, Editor
P.O. Box 2420
West Brattleboro, VT 05303
(802) 257-1342

Steven D. Rosenfield, Attorney
Jeffrey E. Fogel, Attorney
913 E. Jefferson Street
Charlottesville, VA 22902
(434) 984-0300