By Prison Legal News
On October 10, 2013, Prison Legal News filed a federal lawsuit against Sullivan County, Tennessee, the Sullivan County Sheriff’s Office and Sheriff J. Wayne Anderson, alleging that the county jail unconstitutionally censored books, magazines, letters and other correspondence sent to prisoners and failed to provide due process to the sender of the censored items in violation of the First and Fourteenth Amendments.
According to the complaint, filed in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Tennessee, in October 2011 the Sullivan County Jail “adopted and implemented written mail policies and practices that violate the First Amendment by unconstitutionally restricting correspondence to prisoners to postcards only, and that prohibit delivery of book catalogs and magazines to prisoners. Further, Defendants’ policies and practices do not afford Prison Legal News due process, including notice and an opportunity to challenge the censorship.”
Postcard-only policies severely restrict correspondence between prisoners and their family members, children, friends and other contacts in the community, while affording no privacy for correspondence that involves medical, legal or religious matters. No state or federal prisons limit prisoner mail to postcards, even at maximum-security facilities.
Beginning in February 2012, PLN mailed hundreds of copies of its monthly publication, letters, brochures and books to prisoners at the Sullivan County Jail, most of which were rejected by jail employees. Some of the rejected items were returned to PLN while others were not; PLN did not receive notice of the censorship or an opportunity to appeal. In some cases, although PLN verified that prisoners were at the jail at the time the mail was sent, the returned items included notations by jail staff falsely indicating the prisoners were not at the facility.
According to one prisoner housed at the Sullivan County Jail, stacks of PLN’s publications and books mailed to prisoners were seen on the jail major’s desk. Prisoners at the facility can order only eight different magazines from the commissary, including Glamour, Hot Rod and Outdoor Life, but are unable to receive other magazines such as PLN.
“Government officials, including those in the Sullivan County Sheriff’s Office, cannot pick and choose, at their own whim, what citizens can read – even if those citizens have been accused of a crime and are sitting in jail,” stated PLN managing editor Alex Friedmann. “The jail’s postcard-only policy arbitrarily restricts the correspondence that prisoners receive, and the jail’s ban on magazines and books sent to prisoners is plainly unconstitutional. The First Amendment applies to the Sullivan County Jail, too.”
PLN also filed a motion for a preliminary injunction asking the court to enjoin Sullivan County from “enforcing its unconstitutional jail mail policies to reject or otherwise censor news journals, subscription materials, book offers, book catalogs, and other correspondence,” and to order jail officials to afford PLN, prisoners and their correspondents “due process notice and an opportunity to challenge Defendants’ censorship decisions.”
In addition to the preliminary injunction, the lawsuit seeks a permanent injunction; declaratory relief; nominal, punitive, compensatory and presumed damages; and attorneys’ fees and costs.
PLN is represented by attorney Tricia Herzfeld with the Nashville firm of Ozment Law, and by Human Rights Defense Center general counsel Lance Weber. See: Prison Legal News v. Anderson, U.S.D.C. (E.D. Tenn.), Case No. 2:13-cv-00266-JRG-DHI.
Prison Legal News has filed numerous lawsuits challenging censorship by jail officials in other states, and in April 2013 a federal court in Oregon issued the first ruling on the merits in PLN’s challenge to a jail’s postcard-only mail policy. In that case, against Columbia County, the court held “There is not an intuitive, common-sense connection between the postcard-only policy and enhancing jail security.” [See: PLN, June 2013, p.42]. Columbia County has since appealed the district court’s judgment to the Ninth Circuit.
(First published by Prison Legal News and used here by permission)