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PLN files censorship lawsuit against New Mexico jail

Albuquerque Journal, March 24, 2015.

Rights group claims censorship at MDC

A nonprofit advocacy group for prisoners claims in a new federal lawsuit that the Bernalillo County Metropolitan Detention Center is improperly censoring books sent to inmates in violation of their First Amendment rights.

Prison Legal News, a project of the Human Rights Defense Center based in Lake Worth, Fla., claims in the complaint filed last month that prison officials have refused to deliver books sent to pretrial detainees and other prisoners on a range of topics, from how to write a business letter and how to conduct legal research to health care and criminal justice issues.

The group has asked a federal judge to halt the alleged practice.

PLN says it distributes some 50 book titles about criminal justice and self-help to prisoners in 2,400 facilities in all 50 states, including the U.S. Bureau of Prisons and the New Mexico Corrections Department.

Officials at MDC, including current and former chiefs, and Virginia Chavez, the assistant chief of operations, have refused to deliver the books and, in some cases, have stamped them “return to sender” at least 84 times since June 2012, according to the complaint.

In a response, the county defendants acknowledge returning some books, but deny censoring them by refusing delivery. In some cases, they say, the defendants were not in custody at MDC during the time frame alleged.

Prison Legal News contends that books censored by the jail include “Protecting Your Heath and Safety: A Litigation Guide for Inmates,” published by the Southern Poverty Law Center; “Prisoner Diabetes Handbook”; and “The Habeas Citebook: Ineffective Assistance of Counsel.”

The lawsuit names various prisoners they say had copies of “The Habeas Citebook” returned stamped “unauthorized,” “no books,” or “no cardboard.”

Prison Legal News also contends the jail failed to provide due process to the organization about why the materials were being rejected or to explain the reasoning for its rejection, and failed to identify the specific mail policy they were relying upon.

It also says the MDC mail policy “allows inmates to receive magazines, newspapers and periodicals that are generally available to the public, but must be received through the mail from the publisher.”

The county says the language quoted was in a previous version of the mail policy.

None of the actions described in the complaint is a constitutional violation, the county says, and its actions are reasonable in the circumstances and under clearly established law.

U.S. District Court Judge Kenneth Gonzales, to whom the case is assigned, has not set a date for a hearing on the request for a preliminary injunction.

In a filing to support the request, Prison Legal News says it hasn’t been given an opportunity to appeal the jail decision, a violation of the constitutional right to due process.

Among other arguments, Prison Legal News says the alleged censorship has no rational relation to legitimate penalogical objectives, such as safety and security, and that censorship of books, in fact, hinders rehabilitation of inmates.

Accommodating Prison Legal News would not burden jail officials, other inmates or resources, according to the brief seeking the injunction.