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PLN files censorship suit against Cook County, IL jail

Cook County Record, July 14, 2016.

Cook County Sheriff's Office accused of censoring prisoners' rights magazine at county jail

Scott Holland Jul. 14, 2016, 3:56pm

The publishers of a magazine which discusses the legal rights of prisoners have accused the Cook County Sheriff’s Office of unconstitutionally preventing inmates at the Cook County Jail from reading their publication. 

Human Rights Defense Center, of Lake Worth, Fla., filed suit June 30 in Chicago federal court against Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart and the county jail’s Executive Director Nneka Jones. The HRDC publishes a monthly journal titled “Prison Legal News: Dedicated to Protecting Human Rights,” and has alleged the county officials have put policies in place to keep the journal and other such publications from their prisoners, and that such policies violate the publication’s rights under the U.S. Constitution’s First and 14th amendments. 

The Center says its 72-page monthly journal “contains news and analysis about prisons, jails and other detention facilities, prisoners’ rights, court rulings, management of prison facilities, prison conditions and other matters pertaining to the rights and/or interests of incarcerated individuals.” It also prints books and other publications. 

Circulation for the journal includes “thousands of subscribers” domestically and abroad including “more than 2,600 correctional facilities located across all 50 states, including the Federal Bureau of Prisons and the Illinois Department of Corrections.”  

According to the HRDC, the Cook County Jail bars publications on newsprint. It argues this policy conflicts with a 2015 order from Chicago federal Judge Matthew F. Kennelly in Koger v. Dart et al., in which he said the defendants “failed to raise a genuine dispute of fact regarding whether the jail’s newspaper ban is reasonably related to institutional security” and concluded “the jail’s policy banning newspapers is unconstitutional.” 

The Center argues Cook County has reacted to Kennelly’s order by allowing in some publications, but still bars “Prison Legal News.” It further contends the county has censored its softcover book, titled “Prisoners Guerilla Handbook to Correspondence Programs in the United States & Canada,” which it sends directly to prisoners. The book “provides prisoners information on enrolling at accredited higher educational, vocational and training schools.” 

According to the complaint, the Center has sent at least 112 issues of “Prison Legal News” to subscribers at the jail. It also said the county has censored 17 copies of “Prisoner’s Handbook.” 

Barring the publication, the HRDC said, is a First Amendment violation. Failing to afford the Center notice of censorship or opportunity to appeal violates the due process clause of the 14th Amendment, the HRDC alleged, while the policy of permitting some newsprint and softcover materials while barring the Center’s violates the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause. 

Along with the county, Dart and Tapia, there are 10 defendants whose identities are unknown to the Center, but who the HRDC believed were personally involved in adopting or implementing the mail policies at the jail, or managed jail staff “who interpret and implement these mail policies.” 

In addition to a jury trial, the Center seeks declaratory and injunctive relief as well as compensatory and punitive damages and legal fees. 

Representing Prison Legal News in this matter are attorneys with the firm of Loevy & Loevy, of Chicago, and Human Rights Defense Center attorneys.

Arguments from both parties over the Prison Legal News' request for a preliminary injunction are expected in August, according to a July 14 order from U.S. District Judge Joan B. Goatschall.