DOC gets slapped with censorship charges
By Sasha Cordner
Tallahassee, FL – A national magazine that informs inmates about their legal rights is suing the Florida Department of Corrections. As Sascha Cordner reports, Prison Legal News claims the department is violating its rights by blocking its publication within all of Florida's correctional institutions.
About 20 years ago, Paul Wright was a prisoner in Washington State. He'd been convicted of killing a drug dealer while trying to rob him. During his time in prison, Wright started a journal that continues on today called Prison Legal News. And, it gets distributed throughout the nation and overseas.
"These days pretty much everyone just goes to our site gets about 130-thousand visitors, so we definitely get around. We've published news about detention facilities. We've published information about court-rulings. We also publish self-help columns on things ranging from prisoner health to education as well as litigation. This is pretty much the information that prisoners need."
But, now, a ban by the Florida Department of Corrections on the distribution of Prison Legal News within the state's prison system has prompted the magazine to take legal action. Wright claims the department didn't want the publication because of some of the ads it carries:
"They are claiming for the reason for their censorship is because some of our advertisers offer services for pen pals, and discount services for non-prisoners and also because some of our advertisers buy stamps. That's the stated reason."
This is also not the first time Prison Legal News has sued the Corrections' department. The same issue was brought up between 2003 and 2005, when the department censored their magazine, Wright says that's when Prison Legal News decided to file a lawsuit. But, before the trial could even start, DOC's lawyers promised a federal court AND later an appeals court that the department would change its policy and would not do it again.
But, Howard Simon, the Executive Director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, says by re-instating the ban on the publication in 2009, DOC went back on its promise:
"We thought we had an end to this policy more than five years ago when Florida prison officials said they would no longer enforce it, and then without any significant change in the lay of the land in Florida, suddenly, they've decided to start implementing it again. So, what we're seeking now is a formal order from the court, blocking prison officials from violating the first amendment rights of Prison Legal News from being able to communicate and Florida prisoners from receiving information."
The ACLU is one of the groups that filed the lawsuit on behalf of Prison Legal News. Simon says it's clear the department is in violation of the publication's first and fourteenth amendment rights because they are blocking access to information.
"People in prison who want to challenge their conviction and challenge their confinement have access to legal information about the rights of prisoners [through Prison Legal News]. But, even If it were not useful information, a policy of censorship by state officials is just completely inconsistent with the values of this country. Prison officials don't have to like or approve of the information that they receive or get through the mail, but they have to respect the right to get that information."
Randall Berg is the lead counsel for the Florida Justice Institute, the other organization representing Prison Legal News. He says the magazine did not challenge the ban back in 2009 when the department re-instated it because they were trying to settle the matter out of court. But, Berg says with the revolving door of DOC Secretaries, it's been very hard:
"In fact, Secretary Crosby, the original Secretary that censored prison legal news is now a prisoner, was a prisoner, in the federal bureau of prisons himself. After Crosby, there came Secretary McDonough, he was there for a little over a year, then Secretary McNeil, then Secretary Buss, who was there 3 to 6 months, and then Secretary Tucker, who is the current Secretary, and every time there is a new Secretary, Prison Legal News has attempted to get this matter resolved without litigation, but the department has refused to change its policy."
In addition to current Secretary Ken Tucker, there are other defendants listed in the lawsuit. They include the wardens at Dade Correctional, Homestead Correctional, and Everglades Correctional Institutions. Berg says there's a reason for that:
"While Prison Legal News, the monthly publication, has been censored statewide, and that's been a policy at the Florida Department of Corrections, there are also publications that the Prison Legal News publishes or distributes and it's been particularly problematic in South Florida at these institutions and it's for that particular reason they named these wardens as defendants as well."
A spokeswoman for the Department of Corrections says the department is currently looking at the lawsuit and due to the pending litigation, no one from the department can speak on the issue at this time.