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PLN settles censorship suit against Sacramento County jail

Sacramento Bee, Jan. 1, 2012.
PLN settles censorship suit against Sacramento County jail - Sacramento Bee 2012

Sacramento County signs off on settlement to allow distribution of jail publication

By Denny Walsh

Published: Tuesday, Jul. 17, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 1B
Last Modified: Tuesday, Jul. 17, 2012 - 6:42 am

A federal judge signed off Monday on the settlement of a lawsuit that will cost Sacramento County taxpayers $300,000 because the Sheriff's Department was not allowing distribution to inmates of a legal publication designed for prisoners.

The county has agreed to pay that amount to Prison Legal News within 60 days.

In addition, the monthly journal will be delivered to inmate subscribers at the Main Jail and Rio Cosumnes Correctional Center. The department, however, will remove staples that bind the magazines and the address labels before delivery.

The staples and labels are classified as contraband because staples are used by inmates to fashion weapons and drugs such as heroin and LSD are smuggled into prisons and jails on the adhesive backs of labels. Inmates ingest the drugs by licking or eating the labels.

Under the terms of a consent decree signed Monday by U.S. District Judge John A. Mendez, jailers shall not interfere with the delivery of any other publication inmates wish to receive if the department's only objection is to staples and address labels.

The department is also obligated to purchase four five-year subscriptions to Prison Legal News and maintain those copies in jail libraries for use by inmates. Those subscriptions will cost $1,800, according to rates posted on Prison Legal News' website.

Sheriff Scott Jones said in an interview that, although the suit was filed in April 2011, it was just several months ago that he was briefed on it. He said he recognized immediately that "this wasn't an issue to die on the hill for." After that, the county began serious settlement negotiations, he recalled.

Before that, papers filed by the county's outside litigation firm, Longyear, O'Dea & Lavra LLP of Sacramento, read like a declaration of war.

They stated that the county and Jones "are merely the current pawns in Prison Legal News Inc.'s crusade to bully correctional facilities. … While others have chosen not to defend their policies, (the county and Jones) are not inclined to throw in the towel."

But Jones, a lawyer himself, said Monday the matter was "too far down the road before I became aware of it. By that time, the expensive law firm hired by the publisher had probably run up a sizable bill and talks were necessarily in six-figure terms."

"It was never about content," Jones emphasized. "It was about trying to balance our interests in secure facilities with the interests of the publisher."

Ernest Galvan, a partner in the San Francisco firm of Rosen Bien Galvan & Grunfeld LLP, said Jones is only speculating about his firm's fees and costs. He would not, however, say how the $300,000 will be split.

"There really isn't enough money for the attorneys to get all their fees and my client to recover all its damages," Galvan said. "We're confident it would have been a much higher amount had the case gone to trial. Everybody wanted to avoid further costly litigation."

Mendez made a formal finding "that this case concerns the First and Fourteenth Amendment rights of a publisher and is therefore not a case concerning prison conditions as defined in the Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1996." Among other things, the act is meant to steer federal courts away from involvement in prison operations.

Attorneys for the Prison Legal News argued in court papers that Sheriff's Department policies "violated established law on the First Amendment rights of publishers and prisoners."

They quoted a 1987 U.S. Supreme Court opinion: "Prison walls do not form a barrier separating prison inmates from the protections of the Constitution."

In an opinion two years later, the high court said: "There is no question that publishers who wish to communicate with those who, through subscription, willingly seek their point of view have a legitimate First Amendment interest in access to prisoners."

By not extending notice of its policies to subscribers and the publisher and giving them an opportunity to challenge those policies, the department also violated the due process clause of the Constitution, plaintiff's attorneys asserted.

The nonprofit Prison Legal News, based in Vermont, has published since 1990. It reports on issues such as access to courts, disciplinary hearings, prison conditions, excessive force and religious freedom. It has more than 7,000 subscribers, 70 percent of whom are incarcerated.

It is distributed to prisoners in approximately 2,200 correctional facilities, including Federal Bureau of Prisons institutions and prisons in most states. It is distributed in all 33 of California's adult prisons.

Its editor is 47-year-old Paul Wright, who co-founded the magazine while serving 17 years of a 25-year sentence for first-degree murder in the state of Washington.