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Prison Legal News v. Chapman

United States District Court, M.D. Georgia, Athens Division

August 26, 2014

PRISON LEGAL NEWS, a Project of THE HUMAN RIGHTS DEFENSE CENTER, a Not for Profit Corporation, Incorporated in the State of Washington, Plaintiff,
v.
JOE CHAPMAN, the Sheriff of Walton County, Georgia, and WADE HARRIS, Jail Commander for Walton County Jail, in their official and individual capacities, Defendants

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[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

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[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

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[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

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For Prison Legal News, a project of the Human Rights Defense Center, a Not for Profit Corporation, Incorporated in the State of Washington, HUMAN RIGHTS DEFENSE CENTER, a Not for Profit Corporation, Incorporated in the State of Washington, Plaintiffs: ALBERT WAN, GEORGE BRIAN SPEARS, GERALD R WEBER, JEFFREY R FILIPOVITS, ATLANTA, GA; ALISSA HULL, LANCE T WEBER, PRO HAC VICE, BRATTLEBORO, VT.

For Joe Chapman, individually and in his official capacity as the Sheriff of Walton County, Georgia, Major Wade Harris, individually and in his official capacity as the jail Commander for Walton County Jail, Defendants: Andrew Hulsey Marshall, Athens, GA.

For American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Georgia, Movant: CHAD M BROCK, ATLANTA, GA.

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BENCH TRIAL ORDER

C. ASHLEY ROYAL, CHIEF UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

Prison Legal News (" PLN" ) alleges Sheriff Joe Chapman and Jail Commander

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Major Wade Harris (" Defendants" ), in their official and individual capacities, violated PLN's First and Fourteenth Amendment rights by enforcing certain mail policies that unlawfully restricted its means of communicating with individual Walton County Jail inmates. Consequently, PLN requests that the Court issue a declaratory judgment that the challenged policies violate the United States Constitution and permanently enjoin Defendants from enforcing the same. PLN also seeks compensatory, punitive, and nominal damages for each violation of its constitutional rights, along with court costs and attorney's fees under 42 U.S.C. § 1988.

The Court has long wrestled with these multifaceted issues and carefully crafted its decision in balancing PLN's constitutional rights against the practical concerns and limitations of the Walton County Jail. The path provided by legal precedent has not been a clear one. Nonetheless, after considering the evidence and the applicable law, the Court makes the Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law as stated herein. The Court grants judgment in favor of Defendants on PLN's First Amendment claim as to Defendants' postcard-only policy. However, the Court grants judgment in favor of PLN on its First Amendment claim as to Defendants' original publication ban and PLN's Fourteenth Amendment due process claim.

PROCEDURAL HISTORY

PLN filed suit in this Court on September 21, 2012, with an accompanying motion for preliminary injunction. Therein, PLN challenged Defendants' publication ban, postcard-only policy, and notice and appeal policy.[1] The Court ultimately enjoined Defendant from imposing a de facto ban on the PLN's periodicals to the extent these mailings did not otherwise threaten the safety, security, or efficiency of the Jail and its population. However, based on the limited record and parties' briefs, the Court could not determine whether the postcard-only policy violated PLN's First Amendment rights or that the Jail's notice and appeal policy provided insufficient procedural due process.[2]

During a telephone conference on January 16, 2014, the parties agreed to address PLN's claims through the following bifurcated proceeding: (1) a bench trial to determine Defendants' liability and PLN's entitlement to injunctive relief; and (2) a jury trial to determine any resultant damages against Defendants in their individual capacities.[3] Accordingly, the Court conducted a bench trial on February 24, 2014, and thereafter directed PLN to file a post-trial brief and instructed the parties to designate specific evidence for the Court's consideration. These matters are now ripe for adjudication.

FINDINGS OF FACT[4]

PLN is a nonprofit organization that publishes and distributes a variety of print materials, including Prison Legal News, a monthly periodical intended to address prisoners' rights and educate the public

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about prison conditions.[5] Over the last two inmates at the Walton County Jail (the " Jail" ).[6] The Jail is a short-term facility that houses anywhere from 400 to 450 inmates at any given time.[7]

I. Censorship of Inmate Mail

Two Jail employees are charged with processing inmate mail.[8] These employees censor mail in accordance with policies promulgated by the Sheriff of Walton County, Defendant Joe Chapman, and implemented by the Jail Commander, Defendant Wade Harris.[9]

A. Postcard-Only Policy

Effective April 8, 2011, the Jail adopted a policy restricting all non-privileged mail to postcards only (the " postcard-only policy" ).[10] This policy further provides that postcards are " subject to be read by facility staff" who censor objectionable content pursuant to the Jail's " Censorship Guidelines." [11] Because the Jail is currently understaffed, the two employees assigned to mailroom duties are also responsible for fulfilling other miscellaneous duties around the Jail.[12] Since the institution of the postcard-only policy, each employee saves approximately two to three hours per day processing inmate mail.[13]

B. Publication Policy

Also effective April 8, 2011, the Jail adopted a policy prohibiting inmates from receiving publications " of any kind" through the mail.[14] Instead, the policy noted that " [b]ooks are available on a regular basis from the facility library." [15]

C. Notice and Appeal Policy

When censoring postcards, the Guidelines direct the Jail employee to forward the correspondence to Defendant Harris or his designee for review before notifying both the addressee-inmate and author of the Jail's censorship. Thereafter, the author has seven days to appeal the decision through a due process hearing with Defendant Harris or another uninterested third party who did not participate in the original censorship decision.[16] Defendants admit that " [t]he Jail does not have a policy that requires a sender to be notified every time the Jail decides not to deliver to an inmate a book, magazine, or nonpostcard [ sic ], i.e., multi-page, letter from the sender." [17]

II. Censorship of PLN's Mailings

The Jail has censored a majority of PLN's mail pursuant to these mail policies, including numerous periodicals, information subscription brochures, book catalogs,

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book offers, court rulings, letters from the editor, letters from PLN's attorney, and subscription renewal letters.[18] One-third of PLN's mail has been returned through the U.S. Postal Service's " Return to Sender" service. The disposition of the remaining two-thirds of the mail is unknown.[19]

III. Defendants' Post-Litigation Revised Publication Policy

On October 1, 2012, ten days after PLN filed suit in this Court, Defendants revised the contested publication policy to allow inmates to individually order softbound books directly from a bookstore or publisher.[20] However, inmates are still prohibited from receiving periodicals, magazines, and newspapers on an individual basis.[21] Instead, the policy states that magazines, newspapers, and periodicals are " provided by Inmate Services on a regular schedule." [22] In practice, a Jail employee selects a number of magazines from a local retailer each month.[23] Although unclear, it appears the Jail originally purchased 6-7 magazines to be rotated among the cell blocks on a monthly basis but now purchases 12 magazines--one for each of the cell blocks.[24] The Jail has not purchased Prison Legal News.[25]

CONCLUSIONS OF LAW

PLN claims Defendants' mail policies unlawfully infringe upon its right to communicate with the Jail's inmate population and its right to appeal the Jail's censorship decisions in violation of the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution. PLN therefore requests that the Court (a) issue a permanent injunction against Defendants in their official capacities requiring them to cease enforcement of the challenged provisions of its mail policy and afford PLN constitutional due process; (b) issue a declaratory judgment that the challenged policies and procedures violate the United States Constitution; (c) award compensatory, punitive, and nominal damages for each violation of PLN's constitutional rights; and (d) award other appropriate costs and fees, including pre-and post-judgment interest and attorney's fees pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1988.

In response, Defendants contend that each of the challenged policies survives constitutional scrutiny. Alternatively, Defendants assert that several of PLN's concerns have been resolved by the Jail's revised mail policies. Finally, Defendants claim they are entitled to qualified immunity in their individual capacities because their promulgation and enforcement of the contested Jail policies did not ...


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