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PLN settles censorship suit against Chelan County jail in Washington State

Wenatchee World, Jan. 1, 2011.
PLN settles censorship suit against Chelan County jail in Washington State - Wenatchee World 2011

Books allowed: Jail accepts more print under federal decree

By Jefferson Robbins
World staff writer

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

SPOKANE — The Chelan County jail agreed that it violated constitutional law by withholding books and magazines from inmates, and promised to do better under a federal consent decree.

Under the terms of the agreement and a revised jail policy, prisoners of the Chelan County Regional Justice Center can now receive previously prohibited print matter including newspapers, catalogs, dictionaries, novels and educational materials.

The agreement also requires the jail to pay Prison Legal News $180,000 in damages and fees.

The agreement between the jail and publisher Prison Legal News was approved Dec. 1 by U.S. District Court Judge Edward Shea. In it, the jail agreed its prior policy on inmate mail and reading materials, instituted in September 2010, amounted to government censorship and violated the First and 14th Amendments.

The broad policy prohibited "hardbound or paperback books of any kind" and banned "subscriptions to any periodical or magazine," save for daily copies of The Wenatchee World provided to inmates by the jail. As a result, at least 70 issues of Prison Legal News sent to Chelan County inmates were rejected, but the Vermont-based publisher was offered no mechanism to appeal the rule.

Jail Administrator Phil Stanley said some of the 2010 restrictions, such as the ban on all books, were put in place after contraband was found in books shipped to inmates.

The consent decree, negotiated between lawyers for Prison Legal News and jail attorney Milton G. Rowland of Spokane, bars the jail from rejecting mail simply because it contains magazines or paperback books. Jail managers were ordered to formulate a new mail policy that complies with the ruling, and post it for prisoners.

Stanley said a new policy on mail restrictions, finalized Oct. 25, was in the works even as the Prison Legal News lawsuit was filed in September. It allows paperback books if shipped from the publisher or through Amazon, and standard-size magazines that are not sexually explicit. Hardback books remain forbidden.

The new policy features a notification process to alert senders when their mailed periodicals are withheld by the jail. Senders may appeal such decisions within 15 days.

"We’ve been told that it does satisfy the court," Stanley said.

The consent decree also orders that a copy of the policy be posted on the jail’s website, which hadn’t happened as of Tuesday.

"That’s a different department," Stanley said.

The Chelan County Regional Justice Center houses a maximum of 383 inmates, either arrested in Chelan and Douglas counties or held for other agencies under contract.

"We are very pleased with the resolution of the case, and glad that we were able to protect the First Amendment rights of the citizens of Chelan County by overturning this ban on books and magazines," Prison Legal News publisher Paul Wright said in an email.