Skip navigation

PLN prevails in censorship suit against VA DOC

The Daily Progress, Jan. 1, 2010.
PLN prevails in censorship suit against VA DOC - The Daily Progress 2010

The Daily Progress

Published: September 23, 2010

Prison News wins concessions in lawsuit

By Tasha Kates

A monthly prison issues magazine has settled its lawsuit against Virginia Department of Corrections officials for $125,250 and some changes to the prison’s policy on disapproved publications.

According to the settlements between Prison Legal News Inc. and the officials, the 19 previously banned editions of the magazine have been re-reviewed, have been deemed to not violate the DOC’s publication policy and will be made available at the prison facilities of inmate subscribers.

The state agency must also notify Prison Legal News’ Vermont-based publisher if an edition violates policy, specify the content in question and explicitly state why it violates the DOC’s operating procedure. Under the settlements, the DOC will pay $40,000 in damages to the magazine, $83,370 for the magazine’s attorney fees and $1,880 in litigation costs.

Much of the settlements specifically address Prison Legal News, such as preapproval for the nonprofit’s "information packet" with details about subscriptions and books. However, the DOC now will allow third parties to buy periodicals and books for inmates from approved publishers instead of inmates only being able to buy them from their institutional accounts.

Paul Wright, editor of Prison Legal News, said the magazine is pleased with the settlement, but he acknowledged that much of the settlement only affects his publication.

"Our goal isn’t just to stand up for our constitutional rights, but for all publishers who want to communicate with prisoners," Wright said. "... The Virginia DOC is agreeing to respect our due process rights. They’re counting on the likelihood that probably no other publisher will."

Spokesmen for the DOC and attorney general’s office didn’t comment for this story.

The suit named defendants including Gene M. Johnson, the agency’s director, seven members of the Publications Review Committee and wardens and operations officers at the Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women and the Coffeewood Correctional Center.

Jeffrey E. Fogel, one of the Charlottesville-based attorneys who represented Prison Legal News, said the attorneys argued that the policy changes in the settlement should apply generally to other publishers. Although they decided to go with the settlement because it met Prison Legal News’ needs, Fogel said, change might be in the works at the DOC.

"It is our belief that they may be turning towards correctly modifying policy to comply with due process," Fogel said.

The magazine filed suit in October in Charlottesville’s federal court, claiming that the DOC officials were violating the First and Fourteenth Amendments by censoring magazines and books sent to Virginia’s prisoners. When the suit was filed, Fogel said he knew that 14 of 24 Prison Legal News issues in a two-year span had been banned.

Wright said the 7,000-circulation publication had more than 100 subscribers in Virginia’s prisons. If a warden or another official at a prison disapproved of an issue of Prison Legal News, the suit said, the publisher didn’t receive a note of disapproval until after a final decision had been made. The notification includes the page that the disapproved material is on and uses one of 15 criteria upon which a publication can be disapproved as the explanation for the publication’s banning.

The DOC claimed some of the issues of Prison Legal News either cast a negative light on law enforcement or were "detrimental to the security, good order, discipline of the facility, or offender rehabilitative efforts or the safety or health of offenders, staff or others." Some of the objectionable content included articles about a sexual abuse lawsuit against a prison and an inmate who hid marijuana and tobacco in his stomach fat.

Now that the settlement has been signed, Wright said Prison Legal News is extending inmates’ existing subscriptions and working with the DOC to make copies of the previously banned issues. The DOC also will post a notice on prison bulletin boards about the reapproved Prison Legal News issues and the newly permitted third-party book and magazine orders.

Prison reading material has been a controversial topic for the DOC in recent years. The state agency stopped allowing inmates to receive free books from the Charlottesville-based Quest Institute’s Books Behind Bars program in September 2009, but changed its mind after the threat of litigation. The agency decided to allow prisoners to have spoken-word religious CDs after an inmate filed suit.

A federal judge ruled earlier this month that the DOC’s policy of banning classic literature with sexually explicit scenes was unconstitutional. The publishers of the "Jailhouse Legal Handbook," a legal guide to challenging prison mistreatment, filed suit against the DOC in July after the book was banned without notice to the publisher.

Fogel said he is hopeful that the view on censorship in Virginia prisons will change.

"There has been a recognition that they have a serious problem," Fogel said. "The next thing to do is to do something about the serious problem instead of banning individual publications."