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PLN censorship suit mentioned in "Publishers sue VA prisons for banning law guide"

Associated Press, Jan. 1, 2010.
PLN censorship suit mentioned in "Publishers sue VA prisons for banning law guide" - Associated Press 2010

Publishers sue Va prisons for banning law guide


Associated Press Writer

July 21, 2010


Virginia prison officials have unconstitutionally banned inmates from receiving a book that teaches them how to file lawsuits concerning mistreatment or poor prison conditions, the book's publishers claim in a lawsuit filed Wednesday.

National Lawyers Guild and the Center for Constitutional Rights, both nonprofit civil rights organizations, sued state Department of Corrections Director Gene Johnson, officials at Coffeewood Correctional Center in Mitchells and members of the department's Publication Review Committee in federal court in Charlottesville.

The groups claim the officials violated their First Amendment and due process rights when they restricted inmates' access to their book "Jailhouse Lawyer's Handbook: How to Bring a Federal Lawsuit to Challenge Violations of Your Rights in Prison." Corrections officials claimed the book was a danger to prison security or "good order."

"If it is dangerous to educate people about the Constitution, there are a lot of law schools who are going to be in trouble," said Rachel Meeropol, a CCR attorney who helped write the handbook.

The lawsuit says a prisoner at Coffeewood received approval to order the free publication last fall, but when it arrived it was disapproved and sent to the state's Publication Review Committee.

The committee upheld the decision to withhold the publication because its content was considered "detrimental to the security, good order, discipline of the facility, or offender rehabilitative efforts or the safety or health of offenders, staff, or others."

The lawsuit claims the publishers were not notified about the decision as policy dictates, so they were unable to appeal it.

Prison officials referred questions to the Attorney General's Office, which did not immediately return a request for comment.

In the department's publication policy, it outlines the need to monitor what inmates read.

"Offenders retain certain First Amendment rights in regard to free access to publications," it reads. "Correctional administrators have equally valid responsibilities under the Code of Virginia to maintain security, discipline, and good order in their facilities."

The lawsuit is the second in a year challenging the prison system's publication policy. The policy bans publications of a sexual or criminal nature, such as how-to guides to making weapons or drugs, but it leaves wide discretion to ban anything deemed inappropriate for prisoners.

Prison Legal News, a magazine that reports on prisoner rights and criminal justice issues, sued state officials in October after subscribers were denied access to over a dozen of its issues. It also challenged policies that prohibit gift subscriptions and materials that inform inmates how to subscribe to the magazine or buy books from the nonprofit organization.

A December trial is set in that case. Prison authorities have agreed to take the issues off the disapproved list, but the magazine continues to fight other issues raised in the suit, said Jeffrey Fogel, a Charlottesville attorney who represents the magazine and also is working on the "Jailhouse Lawyer's Handbook" case.

While measures have been put in place to cut down on the number of frivolous lawsuits filed by prisoners, Fogel said it also has made it more difficult to push through legitimate complaints.

The idea of having the federal court open to prisoners to complain about the conditions of their confinement is critical, Fogel said.

"When a prison system starts to impose rules like we're not going to let you have a manual that's going to let you resolve disputes peacefully ... what lesson is being taught to the prisoners?" Fogel asked. "It's preposterous."

The lawsuit seeks to require the department to make a copy of the book available to all prisoners who have requested it, to allow any prisoner to obtain a copy and to change administrative procedures to give publishers and prisoners a chance to dispute banned material. It also seeks compensation for damages and fees.