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PLN sues Washington county jail over censorship

Wenatchee World, Jan. 1, 2011.
PLN sues Washington county jail over censorship - Wenatchee World 2011

Inmate magazine sues Chelan County jail over mail policy

By Jefferson Robbins
World staff writer

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

SPOKANE — A publication for prison inmates has filed a federal suit against the Chelan County jail, saying it unconstitutionally bars its detainees from receiving printed matter by mail.

Prison Legal News, a Vermont-based publication that circulates largely to inmates, brought its claim Sept. 9, saying the Chelan County Regional Justice Center’s policies on printed material violate the First and 14th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution. The suit also says the jail provides no suitable recourse for appeal when an inmate’s mail is censored.

The inmates whose flow of magazines, letters, and informational brochures were constricted by these policies, according to Prison Legal News, include murder defendants Christopher Scott Wilson and Steven Swinford, both awaiting trial.

"We’re challenging the policy as a whole as unconstitutionally overbroad," said Seattle attorney Katie Chamberlain, representing PLN. "We’re asking the judge to end the policy, not just as it related to Prison Legal News, but as it relates to periodicals, magazines and books from any publisher."

Jail Administrator Phil Stanley wouldn’t comment on the lawsuit, but said the mail policy is already being studied for revision and some strictures will be loosened — although not because of any legal action.

"Just taking a look at current practice at other jails, we felt that we were probably a little bit more restrictive than we should’ve been," Stanley said. "Just like any other operational issue, you occasionally change how you do business."

For instance, the jail’s mail policy expressly prohibits "hardbound or paperback books of any kind" — a measure that Chamberlain’s fellow plaintiff attorney Jesse Wing said contradicts much of the case law on printed materials in jails and prisons. Books sent via third-party booksellers, rather than directly by friends or family, are often accepted by correctional facilities, he said.

"The family can buy a book and have it sent, but just not be the one to do the sending," Wing said. "But here, none of that’s being allowed."

Stanley said books may soon be accepted if shipped from publishers. When the mail policy was toughened in September 2010, it was partly because books were being used to ship illicit materials to inmates.

"We had had some problems with contraband material coming in with books, yes," Stanley said. He wouldn’t disclose the nature of the contraband.

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. The lawsuit doesn’t specifically sue the jail, but its operating agency, the Chelan County Sheriff’s Office. It also names as defendants Stanley, Sheriff Brian Burnett, former Sheriff Mike Harum, Deputy Jail Administrator Ron Wineinger and Chelan County as a whole.

The mail policy was approved during Harum’s last months in office, and has remained in force under Burnett. It offers The Wenatchee World for inmates in the general population, but otherwise bans "subscriptions to any periodical or magazine."

PLN’s lawsuit lists 26 affected inmates, incarcerated in Chelan County between January and May. According to the lawsuit, the publisher noticed that there was no confirmation its material had been received at the jail, and started making inquiries with the inmates themselves.

"We sent them a letter and asked them to tell us what had happened, and sent them a little declaration for them to write back and say, 'I received this’ or ‘I didn’t receive that,'" Wing said. "We got information back from them which indeed suggested a widespread and routine censorship was occurring."

The jail failed to notify PLN that much of its material was rejected, and didn’t offer the magazine a mechanism to appeal that decision, the lawsuit claims.

Aside from Wilson and Swinford, both due to stand trial in coming months, inmates the lawsuit claims were prevented from receiving PLN materials include:

* Jose Cruz "Crusito" Quintana, now 28, sentenced in January to five years in prison for second-degree assault. Quintana opened fire on a porch filled with people in January 2010, in what police believe was a gang-related attack.

* Terry J. Wilsey, now 22, the "wrong-way robber" who chased down a police car after snatching a woman’s purse Dec. 14 in East Wenatchee. He was sentenced to 18 months in prison in January after pleading guilty to second-degree robbery and possession of a dangerous weapon.

* Scott Brixey, now 49, the embezzler serving 45 months in prison for stealing $250,000 from his Cashmere employer.

* Daniel Farias, 28, awaiting trial for first-degree assault after allegedly beating his mother and leaving her unconscious in their East Wenatchee home.

* Scott James Martin, 48, awaiting trial both in Douglas County and in federal court, on charges that he molested a child and sent video of the crime across the Internet in 2010.

The lawsuit seeks an unspecific amount for damages to Prison Legal News. A hearing is scheduled for Dec. 13 in U.S. District Court in Spokane, before Judge Edward F. Shea.