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PLN settles censorship lawsuit against Berkeley County, South Carolina jail

Post and Courier, Jan. 1, 2012.
PLN settles censorship lawsuit against Berkeley County, South Carolina jail - Post and Courier 2012

Berkeley jail settles lawsuit

Inmates allowed expanded materials

By Allyson Bird

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

If it's not naked or dangerous, inmates can get it mailed to them at the Berkeley County jail.

Officials at the Hill-Finklea Detention Center in Moncks Corner agreed to pay nearly $600,000 on Tuesday to settle a lawsuit filed more than a year ago by the American Civil Liberties Union after jail staff turned away the monthly newsletter Prison Legal News.

The state's Insurance Reserve Fund will foot the bill, which includes $100,000 for Prison Legal News and $499,900 in legal fees for a total that falls just below a $600,000 cap that would stick local taxpayers with the tab.

Before the lawsuit, inmates could receive only religious literature and could purchase some publications from the jail commissary. The ACLU charged that the facility's policy violated inmates' constitutional rights.

Prison Legal News representatives described the case as the largest settlement of its kind, although Will Matthews, an ACLU spokesman in New York, said the money proved secondary.

"They don't cede their constitutional rights just because they are incarcerated," Matthews said, adding that publications connect inmates with life beyond the prison walls. "It's in all of our best interest that they're able to maintain ties with the outside world. Censoring books and magazines and other periodicals really impedes that transition."

Sandy Senn, an attorney representing Berkeley County in the lawsuit, argued that inmates used staples from publications to damage the jail.

She showed reporters in May some of the primitive instruments confiscated behind bars, including a toothbrush and a pen, each with a staple sticking out of the base for tattooing, and a more sophisticated version with a small inkwell.

David Fathi, director of the ACLU's National Prison Project in Washington, called the staple argument "an after-the-fact rationale" at the time, and noted that the jail never mentioned staples in its original reason for rejecting Prison Legal News.

Berkeley County officials hired four Charleston School of Law students and a University of South Carolina student to comb through more than 40,000 inmate files to show evidence that staples damaged the jail.

Jail officials have contended that inmates can jam staples in their toilets' flushing mechanisms and flood their cells, or use them to destroy locks or to manipulate wiring.

Senn said the case, with more than a dozen lawyers at work for both sides, placed a strain on an already overcrowded, underfunded jail.

"It's been such a drain, not only on the taxpayer for having to fund this litigation, but for the time taken away from staff members to go to litigation, to host jail tours," Senn said. "We basically had to stop the jail's functioning and allow them to go into pods and the cafeteria. It really pulled everyone off task."

Since the case began, inmates have been able to receive books and magazines sent directly from bookstores or publishers. As part of Tuesday's settlement, jail officials agreed to remove staples from incoming publications

Jail staff will continue to reject any publications containing sexually explicit nude photographs -- though not educational or artistic images -- and any bulk mailings. They can bring their concerns to court if the volume of stapled publications becomes too high.

Jail officials also agreed to explain to the sender and the intended recipient why they turn away certain publications. The court will maintain jurisdiction over the case for a year as part of the settlement.

Only two inmates at the Berkeley County jail subscribe to Prison Legal News, according to Vermont-based editor Paul Wright. He said he hopes those numbers will grow after the settlement, which he plans to use toward expanding operations and circulation at the 7,000-subscriber publication.

"It's a vindication of the First Amendment rights for all publishers in the United States and, specifically, for all prisoners in the Berkeley County jail," Wright said. "What this case is about is probably 99.9 percent of stuff that's being published. There is no reason to censor it, and there's this blanket censorship."

Senn asked Wright in a deposition about other jail censorship concerns and learned that the Prison Legal News team had begun monitoring other South Carolina detention centers, including the Dorchester County jail.

Senn said she plans to help those facilities change their policies before they face the same legal mess as Berkeley County.

"It's better to get that fixed before they file suit," she said.