PLN prevails, awarded attorney fees in GA jail censorship suit
Legal fees paid; postcard ban OK’d
By DAVID CLEMONS
MONROE — The Walton County Sheriff’s Office must pay the publisher of a jail newsletter more than $100,000 over a ban on certain types of inmate mail.
Prison Legal News, a project of the Human Rights Defense Center in Washington state, sued the Sheriff’s Office, Sheriff Joe Chapman and Jail Commander Wade Harris over policies that kept the magazine from being sent to the Detention Center.
Federal District Judge C. Ashley Royal ruled last year that a postcard-only policy for inmate mail was legal, but said an “absolute prohibition” on inmates receiving publications through the mail violates the First Amendment.
The court also ruled a notice and appeal policy applying to postcards violated the 14th Amendment. The court on Sept. 29 awarded Prison Legal News $92,353.50 in attorneys’ fees and $11,871.76 [in costs], plus interest. The Sheriff’s Office has paid those fees.
In a statement Monday, Chapman said the lawsuit “has become a topic for political purposes.” He said Prison Legal News is created to instruct inmates on how to sue government agencies and also advertises businesses in the sex trade.
“Prison Legal News targets certain size jails to sue, hoping that they will settle out of court,” Chapman said. “I and Walton County chose not to settle.”
The third-term sheriff said he didn’t allow the publication in the jail because of its content but because it uses staples as binding.
“These staples are used to make weapons, they are put in the locks to jam the locking mechanism and are used to make tattoo guns, etc.,” he said.
Lance Weber, general counsel for the Human Rights Defense Center, said he doesn’t recall the Sheriff’s Office making the staples argument in court.
“I know that other sheriffs have done that and we’ve had a couple of cases, yet they will staple commissary receipts to the bag when they deliver food, and they let in other magazines with staples,” Weber said in a telephone interview Tuesday.
He said testimony showed a sheriff’s deputy was going to Walmart once a month “to pick out the magazines they (the inmates) were going to read.
“It was pretty shocking, the lengths to which they went to protect their illegal policy.”
Weber said PLN learned of Walton County’s policy when a state inmate was transferred to the county jail to await a court date. He changed the address on his subscription, but the first issue after his transfer was returned to sender. Chapman noted the “postcard-only policy” was upheld, but that Prison Legal News must be allowed, and the Sheriff’s Office could hire someone to remove the staples before the magazine gets to inmates.
Chapman said existing staff is used to do just that.
The sheriff said Prison Legal News sued for $240,000 and won $104,000 in attorney’s fees.
“This lawsuit was filed in 2012. It wasn’t news three years ago but suddenly it has become an issue for the purpose of political gain,” Chapman said. “This is an attempt to bring down my department and me.”