Jail agrees to end censorship

A lawsuit against the Northwest Virginia Regional Adult Detention Center over denial of books and magazines to inmates has ended in a settlement that the plaintiff’s attorney is hailing as a victory for freedom of the press.

Under the settlement, Superintendent James F. Whitley agreed to allow the inmates to receive publications sent to them through the mail by publishers. The agreement restored the jail’s policy to what it was before April 1, 2014, the day jail administrators prohibited inmates from receiving books and magazines in the mail from publishers or distribution sources. Inmates will still be limited on how many publications they can keep in their cells.

“We have changed our policy,” Whitley said Monday. “We are accepting books and magazines immediately through the publisher.”

Prison Legal News filed the lawsuit after jail officials blocked delivery of 170 copies of the publication to the NRADC from October 2014 through July 2015. The suit also objected to the banning of a book on prisoner lawsuits.

The consent decree submitted by the opposing attorneys and signed by U.S. District Judge Elizabeth Dillon allows jail officials to conduct “reasonable inspection to ensure that any such publication does not present a threat” to safety, order and other concerns of the jail staff.

Whitley imposed the ban amid growing worries over inmates smuggling contraband into the jail through mailed packages such as sealed bags with typewritten labels made to look like a publisher had sent them. In other cases, someone on the outside would peel apart the front and back of a greeting card, place drugs inside and glue it back together before sending it to an inmate.

Whitley said the agreement addresses his concerns about contraband smuggling through books and magazines.

“We have set up inspections for when they come through the mail,” Whitley said of the publications.

Whitley said jail correctional officers will open inmates’ mail in front of them and conduct inspections for contraband.

Attorney Jeffrey E. Fogel, of Charlottesville, who represented Prison Legal News in the lawsuit, said the agreement represented a victory for his client’s constitutional right to freedom of the press.

“We were only asking for that which is required by the Constitution, and they’ve agreed to that which is required by the Constitution,” Fogel said.

Fogel said the agreement allows individual inmates to appeal any decision denying them access to a publication

The appeal would be “heard by someone who didn’t make the initial decision,” Fogel said.

Fogel said he is still seeking damages and attorneys’ fees from the jail, both of which will be settled either by negotiation or further litigation.

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