Prison publication challenges censorship

The publisher of a monthly journal and other printed materials advocating for the rights of prisoners has filed a lawsuit in federal court accusing the Northwestern Regional Adult Detention Center in Winchester of illegal censorship.

The suit, filed in U.S. District Court in Harrisonburg by Prison Legal News, states that NRADC officials prohibited delivery of 170 copies of its monthly journal to the facility from October 2014 through July. The suit describes Prison Legal News as a project of then nonprofit Human Rights Defense Center. The publication’s main offices are in Florida.

The jail administration also banned 16 copies of a book published by Prison Legal News, “The Habeas Citebook: Ineffective Assistance of Counsel,” the suit states.

The suit also states that 25 copies of a book, “Protecting Your Health and Safety: A Litigation Guide for Inmates,” were also banned within the last year.

The suit lists the jail, the jail authority, Superintendent James F. Whitley, Capt. Clay Corbin and 10 unnamed jail employees as defendants.

“Defendants have adopted and implemented mail policies that unconstitutionally prohibit delivery of publications to prisoners in their custody and do not afford senders of censored mail due process notice and an opportunity to challenge the censorship as required by the Constitution,” the suit states.

The suit asks a judge to block the jail from further censorship and for the awarding of unspecified amounts of punitive and compensatory damages.

A phone message left for Whitley was not returned.

Jeffrey E. Fogel of Charlottesville, one of the attorneys representing Prison Legal News, said he has filed suits against the state Department of Corrections and a jail in Virginia Beach challenging restrictions they placed on Prison Legal News publications. Both cases ended in settlements that Fogel deemed successful for his clients.

Fogel said in an interview that the censorship at NRADC is more expansive than those he encountered with the state prison system and in Virginia Beach.

“It’s very different in that it is an outright prohibition on the receipt of any magazines and books,” Fogel said of the NRADC policy.

The lawsuit is accompanied by a memo from Whitley dated Feb. 26, 2014, to all staff inmates. It states in part: “Effective April 1, 2014 books and magazines will no longer be allowed in the facility through the mail, directly from the publisher, or from a distribution source. The reasons for this pertain to contraband control as well as reducing the amount of inmate personal property.”

A follow up memo from Corbin dated April 25, 2014 tells inmates that several magazines and books will be made available on carts placed in each housing unit. The approved magazines for men are listed as Time, People, Field and Stream, Men’s Health and People en Espanol. The list for women is Time, People, Women’s Health, Redbook and People in Espanol. The memo requires that magazines remain in the day room and be returned to the cart when the inmates finish reading them.

“From this point on, no books or packages will be authorized through the mail,” the memo states.

Penal institutions often ban books and magazines delivered by inmate family members and friends, who may use them for smuggling contraband into the facility. But that danger is virtually non-existent with publications received directly from Prison Legal News and other publishers, Fogel said, adding that such publications help prisoners understand their rights and protect them against threats to their health and safety.

“There’s nothing dangerous about these books unless you think litigating is dangerous,” Fogel said.

Contact staff writer Joe Beck at 540-465-5137 ext. 142, or jbeck@nvdaily.com