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PLN prevails in censorship suit against Walton County Jail in Georgia

Courthouse News Service, Oct. 13, 2015.

Prison Legal News Scores Victory in Rural Georgia

     (CN) - A Georgia prison must pay over $100,000 in legal fees and expenses to a human rights advocacy group because jailers unconstitutionally banned delivery of its publication, a federal judge ruled.
     Prison Legal News, a monthly publication that covers criminal justice-related news and litigation nationwide, sued the Walton County Jail in Monroe, Ga., Sheriff Joe Chapman, and Jail Commander Wade Harris in September 1992, after they instituted a postcard-only mail policy.
     The jail typically houses about 350 inmates at any given time, and the policy essentially gave teeth to an already existing ban on publications and periodicals of all kinds.
     "The Jail's policies and practices do not afford prisoners or their correspondents adequate notice of nor an opportunity to challenge improper mail censorship or rejection," the complaint filed by Prison Legal News' publisher, Human Rights Defense Center, said.
     After a bench trial, Chief U.S. District Judge c. Ashley Royal held that while the jail's postcard-only policy passed judicial muster, the resulting publication ban was unconstitutional.
     But the ruling left no one declaring victory.
     Afterwards, Lance Webber, counsel for Human Rights Defense Center, told Courthouse News, "This means that PLN cannot notify its subscribers at the Walton County jail about the disposition of the case by providing them with a copy of the attached ruling unless PLN were to print out the ruling on multiple postcards or write an article about the case result and deliver the information through the pages of its magazine.
     "I think that this means that the prisoners are effectively banned from reading this ruling, unless it were to be sent to a prisoner via legal mail from an attorney."
     Jail Commander Wade Harris told Courthouse News that the publication ban was in place when he took command in 2005. "I started doing some research at that time and found that courts had ruled that this policy was unconstitutional. We started working on our anti-publication policy to figure out how to address that," he said.
     "We were already working on the anti-publication policy when PLN filed the lawsuit," he added.
     The postcard-only policy was implemented at Walton County Jail in 2010.
     "It sounded like a really good idea because we wouldn't be restricting the inmates to only writing X amount of postcards or letters," said Harris.
     "A lot of times correspondence contains information we would need to know about, such as security breaches and contraband. Inmates are less likely to put contraband on a postcard," he continued. "I thought it was a really good idea so we implemented the post-card only policy in 2010. We don't want to keep them from talking to people on the outside."
     "It is undisputed that participation in educational activities behind bars is directly related to lower rates of recidivism among released prisoners. Reading is a fundamental part of education," Weber told Courthouse News.
     "It is also undisputed that prisoners who maintain personal connections with friends and family are less likely to return to prison or jail once released, than those who do not regularly communicate with their friends and family," he said. "Unnecessarily restrictive mail policies like Sheriff Chapman's postcard-only mail policy are bad for public safety because they contribute to higher recidivism rates."