Skip navigation

PLN files suit against TN jail over postcard-only policy

Prison Legal News, Jan. 1, 2013.
Press release - PLN files suit against TN jail over postcard-only policy 2013


Human Rights Defense Center
For Immediate Release

October 30, 2013

Publisher Files Censorship Suit Against Sullivan County Jail

Blountville, TN – Today, Sullivan County, the Sullivan County Sheriff’s Office and Sheriff J. Wayne Anderson were served with a federal lawsuit and motion for a preliminary injunction alleging that the Sullivan County Jail has unconstitutionally censored books, magazines, letters and other correspondence mailed to prisoners, and failed to afford due process to the sender of the censored items.

The lawsuit, which raises claims under the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution of the United States, was brought by Prison Legal News (PLN), a project of the Human Rights Defense Center, a non-profit organization that produces a monthly publication which reports on criminal justice issues and legal rulings related to prisoners’ rights.

According to the complaint, filed in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Tennessee, in October 2011 the Sullivan County Jail “adopted and implemented written mail policies and practices that violate the First Amendment by unconstitutionally restricting correspondence to prisoners to postcards only, and that prohibit delivery of book catalogs and magazines to prisoners. Further, Defendants’ policies and practices do not afford Prison Legal News due process, including notice and an opportunity to challenge the censorship.”

Postcard-only mail policies severely restrict correspondence between prisoners and their family members, children, friends and other contacts in the community, while affording no privacy for correspondence that involves medical, legal or religious matters. Tennessee state prisons do not restrict prisoner mail to postcards, even at maximum-security facilities.

Beginning in February 2012, PLN mailed hundreds of copies of its monthly publication, letters, brochures and books to prisoners at the Sullivan County Jail, most of which were rejected by jail employees. Some of the rejected items were returned to PLN while others were not; PLN did not receive notice of the censorship or an opportunity to appeal. In some cases, although PLN verified that prisoners were at the jail at the time the mail was sent, the returned items included notations by jail staff falsely indicating the prisoners were not at the facility.

According to one prisoner housed at the Sullivan County Jail, stacks of PLN’s publications and books mailed to prisoners were seen on the jail major’s desk. Prisoners at the facility can order only eight different magazines from the jail’s commissary, including Glamour, Hot Rod and Outdoor Life, but are unable to receive other magazines such as PLN’s publication.

“Government officials, including those in the Sullivan County Sheriff’s Office, cannot pick and choose, at their own whim, what citizens can read – even if those citizens have been accused of a crime and are sitting in jail,” stated PLN managing editor Alex Friedmann. “The jail’s postcard-only policy arbitrarily restricts the correspondence that prisoners receive, and the jail’s ban on magazines and books sent to prisoners is plainly unconstitutional. The First Amendment applies to the Sullivan County Jail, too.”

In conjunction with the lawsuit, PLN filed a motion for a preliminary injunction asking the court to enjoin the Sullivan County Jail from “enforcing its unconstitutional jail mail policies to reject or otherwise censor news journals, subscription materials, book offers, book catalogs, and other correspondence,” and to order jail officials to afford PLN, prisoners and their correspondents “due process notice and an opportunity to challenge Defendants’ censorship decisions.”

In addition to the preliminary injunction, the lawsuit seeks a permanent injunction; a “declaration that Defendants’ policies, practices, and customs violate the Constitution”; nominal, punitive, compensatory and presumed damages; and attorneys’ fees and costs.

PLN has filed lawsuits challenging censorship by jail officials in other states, and in April 2013 a federal court in Oregon issued the first ruling on the merits in a challenge to a jail’s postcard-only policy. In that case, brought by PLN, the court held that “There is not an intuitive, common-sense connection between the postcard-only policy and enhancing jail security.”

PLN is represented by Tricia Herzfeld with the Nashville firm of Ozment Law, and by Human Rights Defense Center general counsel Lance Weber. The case is Prison Legal News v. Anderson, U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Tennessee, Case No. 2:13-cv-00266-JRG-DHI.


The Human Rights Defense Center, founded in 1990 and based in Lake Worth, Florida, is a not-for-profit organization dedicated to protecting the human rights of people held in U.S. detention facilities. HRDC publishes Prison Legal News (PLN), a monthly magazine that includes reports, reviews and analysis of court rulings and news related to prisoners’ rights and criminal justice issues. PLN has around 7,000 subscribers and operates a website ( that includes a comprehensive database of prison and jail-related articles, news reports, court rulings, verdicts, settlements and related documents.

For further information, please contact:

Alex Friedmann, Managing Editor
Prison Legal News
(615) 495-6568 (cell)

Tricia Herzfeld, Senior Counsel
Ozment Law
(615) 321-8888 (office)