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PLN sues Michigan jail over postcard-only policy

Daily Press & Argus, Jan. 1, 2011.
PLN sues Michigan jail over postcard-only policy - Daily Press & Argus 2011

Journal suing sheriff over mail

Aug 11, 2011

A monthly journal about prisons is suing the Livingston County sheriff because the jail censors inmate mail and blocks access to inmates.

West Brattleboro, Vt.-based Prison Legal News, a project of the Human Rights Defense Center, filed suit Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Detroit alleging Sheriff Bob Bezotte's department has "adopted and implemented written mail policies and practices that unconstitutionally" restrict correspondence with prisoners to postcards only, which would prohibit delivery of the journal.

"It's frivolous," Bezotte said Wednesday about the lawsuit. "They have no legal standing."

Paul Wright, editor of the journal and a former prisoner, disagreed, saying, "I think this is a critical case of the First Amendment rights of everyone who wants to communicate with prisoners in the jail. Their First Amendment rights are being violated, and the rights of prisoners are being violated. I'm fairly confident we will prevail."

The lawsuit alleges copies of the journal were sent to 50 Livingston County inmates in January, April and June along with the book "Protecting Your Health & Safety" and three single-page, double-sided informational brochures, but the items were not delivered.

Bezotte said the department changed its policy to mostly allow just postcards to inmates as a result of budget concerns. He said the jail lost workers whose duties included reviewing inmate mail for contraband. Switching to postcards, he said, makes it easier to monitor contraband.

The sheriff said inmates are allowed to get journals or magazines if they have a subscription and books if sent from a publisher, but opportunities are limited and are based on the publication because some material, such as sexually explicit photographs, is not allowed.

Officials are also reviewing the department's book/magazine policy because some families send too many books and the inmates use them to hide contraband, the sheriff said.

Bezotte said no inmates requested material from Prison Legal News. Instead, the sheriff said, the company is "bulk mailing and trying to solicit lawsuits" from inmates.

Wright said the journal did mail the items for free to inmates, who comprise 70 percent of its subscribers. He said the lawsuit was necessary because if jails censor Prison Legal News' materials, "it will get to the point where we have no readership."

"If we sit back and let the unconstitutional policy eviscerate our publication, then no one can get them; it eliminates the point of publication," he said.

The lawsuit further alleges that jail officials did not deliver mail marked "legal" and that attorneys for the magazine were also denied access to inmates.

Bezotte said correspondence between inmates and their attorneys is allowed, but merely marking a letter "legal" doesn't mean it is from an inmate's attorney.

Wright said Southfield attorney Brian Prain visited inmates at the county jail on behalf of Prison Legal News, but he was eventually turned away by jail administrators. Wright said Prain's visit was to interview the inmates about alleged First Amendment violations and to determine if there were grounds for the lawsuit.

"The jail seems to be pretty hostile to the rights of the Constitution ... and the First Amendment," Wright said. "This is pretty bizarre."

Bezotte said Prain was allowed to visit one inmate after he indicated he was an attorney, but then Prain asked to see 10 additional inmates. A deputy grew suspicious and asked Prain if he represented any of the inmates.

Bezotte said the jail denied Prain's request when he confirmed that he did not represent the inmates.

"He was pretty sneaky about it," the sheriff said.

Prison Legal News said it has more than 7,000 subscribers, including lawyers and judges. The lawsuit does not specify if any of those subscribers are housed at the Livingston County Jail, but Wright said the publication has "at least five or six" subscribers in the county jail.

It reports stories about inmates' rights and prison conditions. The August edition has an interview with actor and former prisoner Danny Trejo, who appeared in "Heat" and "Machete," as well as a story about prosecutorial misconduct.

Wright also serves as the executive director of the Human Rights Defense Center. The "about us" tab on the organization's Web site yielded no description of its mission.

However, Wright said, the Defense Center is an umbrella organization for the magazine, and added that the Web site "is still under construction." The lawsuit notes that the Defense Center is a Washington nonprofit corporation, but the mailing address on the contact page of the Web site lists the same mailing address as Prison Legal News in Brattleboro, Vt.

"They're trying to make a fast buck on the county, and as the sheriff of this county, I'm not going to allow it," Bezotte said.