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PLN files suit against Bernalillo County, NM jail for book censorship

KOB4, Feb. 10, 2015.

Group claims jail unconstitutionally 'bans' books

Updated: 02/09/2015 10:17 PM | Created: 02/09/2015 9:59 PM 
By: Ryan Luby, KOB Eyewitness News 4

We all need a little self-help at times.  Yet, there are allegations that taxpayer resources in Bernalillo County are closing the door on basic constitutional rights.

The Human Rights Defense Center in Florida has tried to mail legal and medical literature to inmates, but said the Metropolitan Detention Center, or MDC, has kicked them back as "unauthorized," and "No Books!" and "Return to Sender."

"Of all the people that need self-help materials the most, it's probably people in prisons and jails," Paul Wright, director of the Human Rights Defense Center said.

Among the titles: The Habeas Citebook, Protecting Your Health & Safety, and the Prison Diabetes Handbook.

Not among the literature: pornography or anything else Wright and his staff would consider a security threat.

Wright said his organization has mailed the self-help materials to inmates in roughly 2,400 jails and prisons nationwide.

He said MDC's policy on mailed books is more egregious than most he's encountered.

"It's not an overstatement to say that the book still kind of remains the basis of western civilization," Wright said. "It's just stunning that in 2015 you have a jail that's banning books."

The Human Rights Defense Center filed a lawsuit against Bernalillo County and MDC in U.S. District Court last week.  It argues that MDC's censorship violates the free speech under the First Amendment.

Wright said it's happened at least 84 times since June 2012 and has involved a lengthy list of inmates named in a court complaint.

MDC would not comment on the case.  Staff said they cannot discuss pending litigation.

However, KOB reviewed a portion of MDC's mail policy, which plainly states, "Inmates are not authorized to receive books through the mail."  It further outlines other limitations on mail delivery to inmates. 

That policy is largely the basis for the lawsuit that the Human Rights Defense Center expects to win, as it has in other cities before.

"Any time we go to court to defend the Constitution, and we win the case, I think everyone wins," Wright said.

His legal counsel said the organization is handling roughly ten similar cases nationwide.

Indeed, they understand the need for jails to ban books that could pose security risks, but said the books listed in their complaint do not.