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PLN pursues censorship suit against AZ DOC

Arizona Public Media, May 11, 2016.

Magazine Challenges Arizona Corrections Department Over Censorship

The magazine Prison Legal News and the Arizona Department of Corrections are in a dispute over the censorship and redactions made to four issues of the magazine in 2014. The magazine filed a lawsuit against the department of corrections last November when the magazine was notified by prisoner subscribers that they were not receiving their materials.

The four issues of the magazine were withheld from prisoners or redacted after they were flagged for containing sexually explicit material.

The flagged issues contained articles about the sexual assault of prisoners by prison and jail employees. The articles contained information and quotes directly from court opinions.

Paul Wright is the editor of Prison Legal News and the founder of the Human Rights Defense Center based in Lake Worth, Florida. He said the state never contacted the magazine about the censorship and that such actions violate their First Amendment rights.

“We’re a media publisher and we think that it’s pretty outrageous that government officials are using the armed power of the state to censor our speech to one segment of our audience of the American public which happens to be people in prison,” Wright said.

A spokesman from the state’s correction department declined to comment for this story.

The states guidelines for prisoner mail are on the department’s website and say:

"Designated staff at each unit/complex is authorized to open, inspect and read incoming mail to prevent criminal activity and prevent inmates from receiving contraband or any other material that may be detrimental to the safe and orderly operation of the institution."

The department defines sexually explicit material as:

"For the purpose of this Departmental Order, sexually explicit material is defined as publications that feature nudity and/or sexual behaviors/acts and/or the publication is promoted based on such depictions."

Joseph Watson is a prisoner at the Wilmot Prison in Tucson and has written for the magazine for six years. He was one of the prisoners to notify the magazine when he did not receive his materials.

“I don’t really necessarily see any systemic censorship in Arizona’s prisons. What I think is happening is that the policies they have on publications and content that comes into the prisons are just really vague and ambiguous and subjective a lot of times,” Watson said.

Although Watson doesn’t see this as systemic censorship, he said the magazine is of great importance to its readers and makes sure their constitutional rights are upheld.

“A lot of people might ask why is this so important…for prisoners or prisoner advocates to fight for them receiving this kind of material,” Watson said. “A lot of people don’t think it’s that crucial. What PLN really does, and other organizations like PLN, is that they keep agencies like ADC from going down a slippery slope.”

Lance Weber is a lawyer working with Prison Legal News on the case. He said it is unusual that the department focused on the written word within the magazine. He said prisons and jails usually focus on the size of the mail, that it is bound with staples or that it is not sent as first-class mail.

He says the old rules did not require the corrections department to inform senders that their material was censored, but that the rules changed as of March 4, 2016.

Although this is the first time the magazine has been flagged as being sexually explicit because of articles about the sexual assault of prisoners by staff, this is not the first time the magazine has been censored in Arizona. In the last seven years Prison Legal News has won lawsuits with a private prison in Eloy and the Pinal County Jail over the censorship of books and magazines.

The magazine also settled a lawsuit earlier this year with the Nevada Department of Corrections for $475,000 over censorship issues.

Wright says the singling out of the magazine’s news coverage of the sexual assault of prisoners by staff is troubling.

“In our 26 years we report extensively on these issues of sexual assault behind bars and it is interesting that the prison system in Arizona is targeting this type of news coverage for censorship,” Wright said.

Prison Legal News has been in publication since 1990 and covers a range of topics related to criminal justice and prisoner rights. It is a project of the Human Rights Defense Center.

Talks to settle the lawsuit are ongoing.

Amanda Martinez is an Arizona Public Media intern and a University of Arizona journalism student.