ABINGDON, Va. — The Southwest Virginia Regional Jail Authority violated a nonprofit’s due process rights when it blocked prisoners from accessing books and magazines sent by the organization, a federal judge in Abingdon has ruled.
The Human Rights Defense Center is a prisoners’ rights organization that regularly distributes reading material on legal news, current events and inmates’ rights to inmates.
Although the authority’s four jails allowed books and other publications to be collected in common reading rooms, where prisoners could request up to two books at a time, the authority adopted a policy in 2016 that banned any books or publications from being delivered without case-by-case preapproval. Prisoners would be required to submit requests for each new magazine.
According to the suit, the authority returned hundreds of magazine issues to the HRDC without clearly stating its policy on why they were being rejected.
U.S. District Judge James Jones said in his June 5 ruling that while the jail authority could reasonably ban certain materials from inmates, the policies that prevented prisoners from accessing the HRDC publications were “inconsistently communicated and applied” and that alternate means of delivery would place an undue burden on the HRDC.
The Jail Authority justified banning most of the publications due to safety concerns, arguing that the staples and glue that make up the Human Rights Defense Center’s publications could endanger the safety of guards or prisoners, pose possible fire hazards or provide materials used for drug or weapon smuggling.
Jones said the evidence wasn’t strong enough to prove that the preapproval policy would actually diminish the cited safety risks, and the lack of a written policy made the system too open to abuse.
“Such a policy invites arbitrary decisions that are driven by individual officials’ biases and do not bear a rational relationship to legitimate penological interests,” the ruling states.
The authority’s inability to clearly communicate with HRDC was also a violation of its rights to publish material for prisoners, Jones said.
The case will proceed to trial by a jury, which will decide damages in the suit. The HRDC is seeking relief to cover attorney fees.