$300,000 Settlement in Jail Censorship Suit Against Sacramento County
Sacramento, CA – On Monday, July 16, 2012, Prison Legal News (PLN), a monthly publication that reports on criminal justice-related issues and a project of the non-profit Human Rights Defense Center, settled a lawsuit filed against Sacramento County and Sheriff Scott R. Jones for $300,000 plus policy changes in the county’s jail system.
The suit was filed in federal court in April 2011 after Sacramento County jail staffers refused to deliver PLN’s monthly publication to prisoners and failed to notify PLN of that censorship in violation of the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution. The publications were rejected because they included small staples (used to hold the magazine together) and had mailing labels or stickers, which jail officials claimed presented a security risk.
The federal district court granted PLN’s motion for a preliminary injunction on March 7, 2012, with U.S. District Court Judge John A. Mendez finding that the jail’s censorship of publications sent to prisoners was “an exaggerated response to any security concerns posed by PLN.”
The court further held that PLN had “demonstrated a likelihood of success on the merits of its First Amendment claim,” and that the defendants’ “policies and practices including refusing to deliver PLN publications and mailings to prisoners because they contained staples and/or a mailing label are not supported by a legitimate penological interest and do not leave open alternative means for PLN to exercise its First Amendment rights.”
A subsequent settlement agreement was approved by the court on July 16, 2012. In addition to the $300,000 monetary payment for PLN’s damages and attorney fees, the jail agreed to change its mail policies to allow prisoners to receive publications that have staples or mailing labels, provided that staff may remove the staples and labels. The jail also will supply “adequate written notice and an administrative review process” to publishers when any publication, correspondence or documents sent to prisoners are rejected. Finally, the county agreed to purchase four 5-year subscriptions to PLN for each jail library.
The settlement, in the form of a consent decree, specifies “that providing prisoners with access to reading materials promotes positive contact with the communities into which prisoners will eventually be released and is therefore consistent with the Defendants’ public safety mission.”
“We are pleased that Sacramento County has agreed to adopt lawful mail policies for its jails and stop engaging in unconstitutional censorship,” said PLN editor Paul Wright. “But we would have been more pleased had the jail not censored our publication to begin with, which necessitated our filing a lawsuit to protect our First Amendment rights.”
“The injunction in this case should serve as a warning to other correctional agencies,” stated Ernest Galvan, one of the attorneys who represented PLN. “There has been an unfortunate trend recently for local jails to adopt all kinds of restrictions on reading materials. Reading materials are not a threat to safety. On the contrary, access to a wide range of reading materials helps people learn that there are lawful non-violent ways to solve the problems that they will inevitably face when they return to the community.”
The case was Prison Legal News v. County of Sacramento, U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California, Case No. 2:11-cv-00907.
PLN was represented by attorneys Sanford Jay Rosen, Ernest Galvan, Kenneth Walczak and Blake Thompson of Rosen, Bien, Galvan & Grunfeld LLP, a San Francisco law firm, and by HRDC chief counsel Lance Weber.
Prison Legal News (PLN) is a project of the Human Rights Defense Center. HRDC, founded in 1990 with offices in Brattleboro, Vermont, is a non-profit organization dedicated to protecting human rights in U.S. detention facilities. HRDC publishes PLN, a monthly magazine that includes reports, reviews and analysis of court rulings and news related to prisoners’ rights and criminal justice issues. PLN has approximately 7,000 subscribers nationwide and operates a website (www.prisonlegalnews.org) that includes a comprehensive database of prison and jail-related articles, news reports, court rulings, verdicts, settlements and related documents.
For further information, please contact:
Paul Wright, Editor
Prison Legal News
P.O. Box 2420
Brattleboro, VT 05303
Rosen, Bien, Galvan & Grunfeld LLP
315 Montgomery Street
San Francisco, CA 94104
July 17th, 2012