Skip navigation

PLN's lawsuit against Orleans Parish jail discussed

The Lens, Jan. 1, 2011.
PLN's lawsuit against Orleans Parish jail discussed - The Lens 2011

Censorship of inmate mail at Orleans Prison alleged in civil rights lawsuit against Gusman

Matt Davis, September 12, 2011 Leave a Comment

By Matt Davis, The Lens staff writer

Orleans Parish Prison inmates can receive bodice rippers and the Times-Picayune by mail, but not serious novels or a periodical on prisoner rights, according to civil rights attorneys who have filed a suit against Sheriff Marlin Gusman alleging censorship.

Civil rights attorney Mary Howell, her colleague Elizabeth Cumming, and another local attorney, John Adcock, filed the lawsuit Friday on behalf of a national periodical called Prison Legal News, published by a Vermont-based nonprofit called the Human Rights Defense Center. The lawsuit argues that Gusman’s policies excluding certain publications from the jail violate the First and Fourteenth amendments.

Prison Legal News publishes articles on prisoner rights by a variety of prominent authors including Noam Chomsky, Dan Savage, and Mumia Abu-Jamal, according to Prison Legal News editor Paul Wright. "We cover issues like inmate safety, legal precedent and prisoner rights. And yet the sheriff is prohibiting his inmates from reading it," Wright said.

The publication has 7,500 subscribers in prisons around the country and currently 35 at Orleans Parish Prison. Gusman’s staff returns the publication to its sender, rather than delivering it to subscribers, according to the suit.

The lawsuit also takes aim at Gusman’s policy of allowing inmates to order only those books and magazines listed on the jail commissary menu. Listed periodicals include Newsweek and Essence and The Times-Picayune. Novels deemed "acceptable" typically have titles such as Swimsuit, Sizzle, Miss Liz’s Passion/Home on the Ranch, and Big Girl: A Novel.

"No disrespect to Danielle Steele, but if inmates want to read something more than bodice-ripping romance novels, then they certainly have the right to do so," Wright said. "Inmates in the New Orleans jail are incarcerated, in some cases, for the fairly long term, and they are being deprived of any serious reading material."

Books sent from bookshops and books not on each warden’s approved list are returned to the sender. For example, the prison returned a copy of Dante's Inferno to a bookstore last October, according to the suit. And the prison also sent back eight of 35 copies of a book called Protecting Your Health And Safety, which were sent to Prison Legal News subscribers, the suit alleges.

The suit further argues that Gusman does not adequately explain his policy of literary acceptability, and that he fails to offer his inmates the opportunity to challenge it, as the constitution allows.

"It's pretty outrageous that our target audience of prisoners can’t receive our publications and our books on prisoners’ rights because of the very unconstitutional policies that we exist to try to get rid of," Wright said.

Prison Legal News and the Human Rights Defense Center also filed similar suits against jails in Washington and Arizona last week. The state prison systems in New York and Florida have tried to ban Prison Legal News from their prisons, based on the way the publication is paid for in New York using postage stamps, and based on the publication carrying advertisements, in Florida, respectively, but over the past 10 years, Prison Legal News has won suits forcing nine other states, including California, Alabama and Michigan, to distribute its publication. And it is yet to lose a lawsuit based on the content of its publication.

Howell, Cumming and Adcock declined to comment on the suit because the litigation is pending. Gusman’s paid spokesman, Marc Ehrhardt, has yet to respond to a request for comment.