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Judge overturns ban on bulk mail for inmates

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    NMU         WASHINGTON         Newsgathering    

Judge overturns ban on bulk mail for inmates

  • The decision is a victory for a prison magazine publisher, who claimed Department of Corrections policies were unconstitutional.

July 11, 2003 — Catalogs, subscription information, and other third-class mailings to prisoners cannot be blocked, a federal judge in Seattle ruled June 17. Judge Robert Lasnik’s decision, which takes effect on Aug.16, reverses a Washington Department of Corrections policy prohibiting distribution of these materials.

“This ruling protects the right of book publishers, magazine publishers, [and others], to communicate with their own members and subscribers,” said Jesse Wing, attorney for the Prison Legal News.

PLN, a nonprofit publisher and distributor of information regarding prison conditions and prisoner’s rights, challenged the department’s policy in court. It claimed that renewal notices, comment solicitation forms, book catalogs, and other pieces of mail were being thrown out before they reached the inmates.

The Department of Corrections defended its practices. They asserted the prohibition was necessary to cut down on massive volumes of mail and prevent smuggling of contraband. Additional paper received through bulk mail also could increase the fire risk and make searching cells more complicated.

Lasnik said there was no “rational relationship” between the ban and the department’s reasoning. “It is far more likely that contraband would be contained in personal first class mail from . . . an inmate’s friends or family members, than in bulk mail,” he wrote in the opinion.

The ban’s effect on total volume of prison mail also was questioned. A five-day study of the Monroe Correctional Complex, conducted by the PLN, yielded 31 pieces of bulk mail for all 3,400 of the facility’s inmates and employees, Wing said. As stated in the court decision, the department asserts that this number will increase once the ban is lifted.

The case is not entirely over, Wing said. The court has yet to rule on a claim that the department is censoring public legal materials, such as court rulings and briefs, sent to inform inmates about the prison legal system. A trial on the issue is tentatively scheduled for October, he said.

(Prison Legal News v. Lehman; Media counsel: Jesse Wing, MacDonald Hoague & Bayless , Seattle) EH

© 2003 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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