Block on prison’s legal news delivery spurs suit

Claims that Nevada prison officials are improperly banning legal rights publications mailed to Nevada inmates have drawn a First Amendment lawsuit backed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada.

A lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Reno accuses the Nevada Department of Corrections of improperly using a restriction on mail with address labels and envelope tape as a pretext to confiscate and discard copies of Prison Legal News sent to prisoners.

“The First Amendment does not end at the prison door,” ACLU Legal Director Staci Pratt told the Las Vegas Review-Journal. “Censorship of legal materials through the establishment of arbitrary procedural roadblocks does not comport with the Nevada Department of Corrections’ constitutional obligations.”

Prison Legal News aims to protect inmate legal rights and educate prisoners on various issues.

The ACLU official said the issue goes beyond one publication to encompass the constitutional rights of inmates and publishers to communicate with each other.

Pratt said policies on access to materials could even affect the ability of children to send a report card or other communication to an incarcerated parent.

Officials at the Department of Corrections said they don’t comment on active lawsuits.

The Human Rights Defense Center, which publishes Prison Legal News, is also a plaintiff in the lawsuit. It seeks a court finding that refusing to deliver the publication is a constitutional violation, an injunction preventing prison officials from blocking the receipt by prisoners, and unspecified punitive and compensatory damages.

Pratt said ACLU officials are talking with the Nevada attorney general’s office about resolving the case.

It was filed June 28, shortly after corrections officials adopted a new temporary policy prohibiting mailed information related to security issues such as how to make weapons and sexually explicit publications.

The policy also states that inmates should have access to books through approved vendors, and it provides for an appeals process if a request is denied.

Paul Wright, editor of Prison Legal News, said he thought the prison restrictions had no connection with legitimate security-related interests, and were being used to justify illegal censorship by prison officials.

The June issue of Prison Legal News contains a variety of articles, including a state-by-state analysis of prison closures, a report on a New York decision that county jails do not need to provide law libraries and an article titled “How the Prison-Industrial Complex Destroys Lives.”

Wright said there is no consistent, blanket ban at all institutions statewide. He said the magazine has about 50 Nevada inmate subscribers.

The problem was more related to the publication’s book list, Wright said, including such titles as “Beyond Bars, Rejoining Society After Prison” and “Criminal Law in a Nutshell.”

Books ordered by Nevada inmates are frequently sent back, and Wright said it appears to be because of hostility to the organization’s mission to help inmates improve themselves.

The publication won a judgment and settlement in 2000 after suing the Nevada Corrections Department on the issue. The state agreed at that time that prisoners would be able to subscribe to publications of their choice.

Pratt said the agency never honored the agreement.


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