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Article covers PLN censorship suit against Cook County, IL jail

Chicago Law Bulletin, Nov. 25, 2016.

Posted November 25, 2016 10:17 AM

No injunction over jail rule on magazines

By Patricia Manson
Law Bulletin staff writer

A federal judge earlier this week declined to order Cook County Jail officials to halt what a publisher alleges is the censorship of its books and magazine.

In a written opinion, U.S. District Judge Joan B. Gottschall denied a motion for a preliminary injunction that would have allowed prisoners to receive material published by Prison Legal News while PLN’s lawsuit is pending.

PLN alleges jail officials are blocking the distribution of the journal, Prison Legal News, that it mails to at least 112 prisoners each month.

Officials also have refused to deliver the 17 copies of a reference book — Prisoners’ Guerilla Handbook to Correspondence Programs in the United States and Canada — that it has mailed to prisoners since March 2015, PLN alleges.

PLN alleges mailroom policies and practices at the jail are blocking prisoners from receiving the publications in violation of its constitutional rights.

In her opinion issued Monday, Gottschall conceded PLN “has raised legitimate concerns” about whether jail personnel are preventing Prison Legal News and Prisoners’ Handbook from reaching their intended recipients.

However, PLN has not presented enough evidence — at least at this point — to show that it likely will prevail on its claim that its First Amendment rights are being trampled, Gottschall wrote.

It is not clear, she wrote, whether prisoners have access to Prison Legal News and Prisoners’ Handbook in the common areas of the jail.

“The court simply cannot be certain at this juncture that protected speech is being restricted,” Gottschall wrote.

Under that circumstance, she wrote, the “extraordinary remedy” of a preliminary injunction is not warranted.

Attorneys representing Prison Legal News include Matthew V. Topic of Loevy & Loevy and Lance Weber of the Human Rights Defense Center in Lake Worth, Fla.

PLN is a project of the center, which is a nonprofit organization that advocates for the rights of people in U.S. detention facilities.

PLN published the Prisoners’ Handbook in 2009 and publishes the Prison Legal News monthly.

Paul Wright is the center’s executive director and Prison Legal News’ editor.

“We’re disappointed that the court denied the motion,” he said. “But our case continues.”

And he predicted PLN will ultimately prevail on its claims.

The lead attorney for the defendants in the suit is Cook County Assistant State’s Attorney John M. Power.

Defendants are Cook County, Sheriff Thomas J. Dart and Nneka Jones Tapia, the jail’s executive director.

In a statement, spokeswoman Sophia Ansari said the sheriff’s office is pleased with Gottschall’s ruling.

She said the office balances inmates’ need for access to material related to “their legal and criminal justice concerns” with the need for safety and security.

“We are always willing to work with outside entities to find this balance in as an efficient and cooperative manner as possible,” Ansari said.

“We are disappointed that the parties chose to sue us over an issue that can be easily resolved through cooperation and understanding.”

Since 2007, the jail has barred inmates from receiving magazines or other periodicals directly from the publisher.

In 1984, the jail had banned all newspapers within its walls.

But the jail relaxed that restriction in 2015 after U.S. District Judge Matthew F. Kennelly held it violated the First Amendment. Gregory Koger v. Thomas J. Dart, et al., No. 13 C 7150.

A mailroom policy was updated to give inmates access to approved newspapers in recreation rooms or law libraries.

However, USA Today was the only newspaper made available to inmates in common areas.

Another policy change in September purportedly made Prison Legal News available in common areas or possibly by subscription.

But the policy was not reduced to writing, Gottschall wrote in her opinion, and even jail officials seem to be uncertain about its exact provisions.

She also noted PLN contends Prison Legal News still is not available in the jail.

Citing cases that included Thornburgh v. Abbott, 490 U.S. 401 (1989), Gottschall found that PLN has a First Amendment interest in sending correspondence to jail inmates.

However, that interest can be outweighed by restrictions that are “reasonably related to legitimate penological interests,” Gottschall wrote, quoting Turner v. Safley, 482 U.S. 78 (1987).

Jail officials, she wrote, have offered reasons that — “at least on their face” — meet this requirement.

Officials note that newspapers are highly flammable and can be used to clog toilets or hide weapons and contraband, Gottschall wrote.

Officials, she wrote, also say newspapers can be used to cover cell windows and to send coded messages.

Officials also argue that allowing more reading material into the jail through subscriptions would increase the mailroom staff’s workload, Gottschall wrote.

She wrote other factors — PLN’s inability to exercise its right to correspond with inmates and jail officials’ concession that they could easily make Prison Legal News available in common areas — are not enough to tip the scales in favor of PLN’s request for a preliminary injunction.

The case is Prison Legal News v. Cook County, Ill., et al., No. 16 C 6862.