Skip navigation

PLN profiled in article about censorship suit against Florida jail

Daily Business Review, Jan. 1, 2013.
PLN profiled in article about censorship suit against Florida jail - Daily Business Review 2013

Justice Watch: Prison Legal News Is Filing, Winning Federal Lawsuits

By John Pacenti Contact All Articles

Daily Business Review

December 20, 2013

The October issue of Prison Legal News contained one story entitled, "How many inmate deaths is too many?"

Another article addressed a Justice Department investigation into widespread sexual abuse in Alabama women's prisons by male guards, while another took a look at what led to a mentally ill prisoner in Illinois to die on a hunger strike.

Sprinkled throughout the edition were advertisements offering, for instance, the newest edition of "The Prisoner's Self-Help Litigation Manual."

Every issue of Prison Legal News contains news inmates can use, but many jails and some prisons don't want them to have it.

Paul Wright, who started the publication from his Washington state jail cell in the 1990s, has fought back, filing dozens of lawsuits against state and counties across the country in the last decade. He has recently moved operations from Vermont to Lake Worth.

Wright is the founder and executive director of the Human Rights Defense Center and editor of Prison Legal News. He challenges corrections policies keeping out his publication and other types of correspondence—even letters from family and friends.

Wright served 17 years in prison after being convicted of killing a man in the robbery of a cocaine dealer when he was 21. By the time he was released in 2003, Prison Legal News was more than a decade old and had broken numerous stories about inmate exploitation.

The magazine and its parent, Human Rights Defense Center, filed its latest legal salvo last week, a federal complaint against St. Lucie County Sheriff Kenneth J. Mascara.


The lawsuit challenges a department policy requiring all incoming mail to be on postcards—a get-tough-on-criminals approach started by Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio in Arizona.

The litigation assigned to U.S. District Judge Jose E. Martinez in Fort Pierce claims the policy is unconstitutional because it de facto bans Prison Legal News.

Its "publications, books and other materials ... are political speech and social commentary, which are at the core of First Amendment values and are entitled to the highest protection afforded by the U.S. Constitution," according to the lawsuit.

Adam Fetterman, an attorney with the St. Lucie Sheriff's Department, said he is reviewing the case.

"Despite numerous outside cases by Prison Legal News, there are a number of court decisions that are favorable to the sheriff in regards to security issues," he said.

Wright's newsprint magazine is serious journalism.

In 1994, Wright reported then-Republican U.S. Rep. Jack Metcalf was using prison labor to staff his get-out-the-vote telemarketing campaign. Two years later, Wright exposed how Microsoft Corp. was using prison labor to package some of its software.

Then in 2006, Prison Legal News, which also goes by PLN, revealed the Kansas Department of Corrections employed relatives of the founder of the extremist Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan. The church is known for picketing the funerals of U.S. soldiers and gay murder victims.

St. Lucie is hardly the only legal battle being waged by Wright. In total, Wright and his organization have filed about two dozen lawsuits across the country since 2000 to get the publication into the hands of inmates. They usually end in consent decrees or policy changes.

So why are prisons and jails so worried about inmates reading a magazine highlighting issues important to them?

Mission to educate

"I can only guess that prison officials are worried about being held accountable for their actions because PLN's mission is to educate prisoners about the legal system and their rights and sort of give them hope and obtain relief for constitutional violations by using the judicial system," said Lance Weber, general counsel for the Human Rights Defense Center.

The magazine has about 9,000 subscribers and gets passed around so much by inmates that Weber estimates readership at 100,000 per issue.

The suit against the St. Lucie sheriff claims the jail also is rejecting books to help inmates file pro se pleadings, turning away 31 copies of a book on the subject from February 2012 to August 2013.

As a result, the inmates' constitutional right to free speech and their due process rights under the 14th Amendment are being violated, the suit claims.

Postcard-only policies are counterintuitive to Weber. He noted many people in jail are there for the first time, either waiting for court proceedings or serving minor sentences. They are often battling addiction and chaos at home, and trying to become employable after they get out. He said curtailing correspondence short circuits the re-entry process.

"Postcard-only policies are cutting off communication and getting in the way of rehabilitation," Weber said.

Florida sued

Attorney Randall Berg, executive director of the Florida Justice Institute in Miami, said his organization has teamed up with Wright to challenge prisons and jails on mail policy in lawsuits in Florida.

"Why don't you want these people to educate themselves?" Berg asked. "They need to know stuff that's dealing with their health and safety, their legal rights."

The St. Lucie lawsuit is not challenging the need to review inmate mail, but Berg said a liberal mailing policy is important for jail inmates to keep employment avenues open as well.

He noted the U.S. Bureau of Prisons doesn't have Draconian policies on correspondence and neither do most state prisons. "If prisoners in state and federal facilities are allowed to receive letters and books, pre-trial detainees should be able to do so, as well," he said.

Not all state prisons are playing ball with Prison Legal News. Weber said Florida reneged on a deal made in 2004 to allow the publication over the wall.

"They claim the reason is the content of our advertising. PLN carries ads for services prisoners are not allowed, such as for pen pals and stamps," Weber said. "Other states have policies like that, but they don't ban PLN. They ban correspondence with the vendor."

The lawsuit is pending in Tallahassee federal court.