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Federal judge issues preliminary injunction in PLN suit against Sacramento Co. jail

Sacramento Bee, Jan. 1, 2012.
Federal judge issues preliminary injunction in PLN suit against Sacramento Co. jail - Sacramento Bee 2012

Federal judge says Sacramento County inmates can get magazine

By Denny Walsh

Published: Friday, Mar. 9, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 3B

A federal judge on Thursday ordered the Sacramento County Sheriff's Department to quit interfering with delivery to jail inmates of a legal publication designed specifically for prisoners.

U.S. District Judge John A. Mendez decreed that Sacramento County and Sheriff Scott Jones and his employees "shall not refuse to deliver" Prison Legal News in the Main Jail and Rio Cosumnes Correctional Center.

Lawyers for the county argue in court papers that magazine staples and mailing labels are contraband because staples are used by inmates to fashion weapons and drugs like heroin or LSD are smuggled into jails on the adhesive backs of labels. "Inmates ingest the drugs by licking or eating the paper," they say.

But lawyers for the magazine insist in court papers they have presented unrefuted evidence that "staples of the type PLN uses to assemble its publication are ill-suited for sharpening or use as blades or points. Prison Legal News is distributed to prisoners in 2,200 correctional facilities across the United States, the vast majority of which distribute it with its staples intact, with no reported security incidents."

The labels "do not pose the smuggling hazard of larger commercial labels," the magazine's lawyers argue. Further, they maintain, the county presented "no evidence that a prisoner has ever successfully colluded with a publisher to smuggle drugs under the address labels used by publishers such as PLN."

In his four-page order, Mendez says sheriff's personnel may remove the staples and labels before delivering the magazines, but these items cannot be used as reasons to prohibit distribution of Prison Legal News at the jails.

Removal of the items is a burden that should not be placed on a department short of staff because of budget cuts, the county's lawyers say.

Mendez was not moved.

The preliminary injunction will remain in effect until the lawsuit filed last year by Prison Legal News against the county and Jones is resolved.

Paul Wright, editor of Prison Legal News, said his attorneys "did an excellent job in a difficult and complex case." In-house counsel worked with the San Francisco law firm Rosen, Bien & Galvan.

Nonprofit Prison Legal News, based in Vermont, has published monthly since 1990. It reports on prison litigation and conditions of confinement, primarily in the United States. It has more than 7,000 paid subscribers, 70 percent of whom are incarcerated.

Associate editor Alex Friedmann said PLN has had success with "censorship" lawsuits similar to the one in Sacramento.

Sacramento law firm Longyear, O'Dea & Lavra declares in its brief that the county and Jones "are merely the current pawns in Prison Legal News Inc.'s crusade to bully correctional facilities into operating how it sees fit. While others have chosen not to defend their policies, (the county and Jones) are not inclined to throw in the towel."

Their policies "are reasonably related to legitimate penological interests, unrelated to the content or message of Prison Legal News, and not intended to discriminate," the firm's brief says.