New York DOCCS Settles Statewide PLN Censorship Suit for $155,000

New York DOCCS Settles Statewide PLN Censorship Suit for $155,000

By Alex Friedmann

The New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (NYDOCCS) has settled a federal lawsuit filed by Prison Legal News that challenged the censorship of PLN’s monthly publication, books, and correspondence at New York prisons statewide.

PLN claimed in its complaint, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York on October 11, 2011, that the NYDOCCS had an “unconstitutional policy of prohibiting inmates from receiving any and all books, magazines, letters, and postcards distributed by Plaintiff, including letters from Plaintiff’s attorney…,” which “deprives Plaintiff, as well as its subscribers, of important First Amendment rights and serves no neutral, legitimate penological purpose.”

PLN argued that beginning in 2009, the NYDOCCS had placed its publication on a list of “disapproved vendors” because PLN accepts payments for subscription and book orders in the form of postage stamps, and publishes advertisements for alternative prison phone services, both of which are against NYDOCCS policy. PLN editor Paul Wright called these justifications “pretextual.” [See: PLN, Nov. 2011, p.12].

PLN filed suit as a last resort after repeatedly contacting the NYDOCCS and requesting that state prison officials stop their unconstitutional censorship of PLN’s publications and books. Those requests were ignored or denied.

On January 27, 2012, less than four months after PLN’s lawsuit was filed, the NYDOCCS issued a memo to all state prison superintendents. The memo stated that while PLN and other publications accept stamps as payment and include ads for services that violate NYDOCCS policy, “Rather than barring the introduction of these publications altogether or attempting to redact or remove all such objectionable advertisements from each publication, correctional facilities are to include, along with each publication,” a notice warning prisoners that they are subject to disciplinary action if they violate NYDOCCS rules related to postage stamps and phone services.

The memo also stated that “If a publisher was added to a disapproved vendor list based solely upon the presence of the aforesaid objectionable advertisements in its publication, the publisher should be removed from that list at this time.” As a result of the memo, PLN’s monthly publication and books were once again allowed into NYDOCCS facilities statewide.

“In my opinion, the state responded in a responsible and direct manner,” said PLN attorney Elmer R. Keach. “They changed regulations because of our case. That’s a pretty big deal.”

A settlement was reached on November 9, 2012, with the NYDOCCS agreeing to pay $75,000 in damages and $80,000 in PLN’s attorney fees and costs. The defendants admitted no liability as part of the settlement. Following a lengthy delay and a demand letter submitted by PLN, the state paid the $155,000 settlement in May 2013.

“Although we’re glad that New York prison officials changed their practices and are allowing PLN into state prisons again, we are concerned that some mailroom staff will continue to censor our publication and book orders,” Paul Wright said. “Therefore, it’s important for prisoners to let us know about any continuing censorship problems involving Prison Legal News and the NYDOCCS.”

PLN was represented by Amsterdam, New York attorney Elmer R. Keach III and Human Rights Defense Center general counsel Lance Weber. See: Prison Legal News v. Lee, U.S.D.C. (S.D. NY), Case No. 7:11-cv-07118-VLB-LMS.

New York is the 10th state in which PLN has obtained a court order or consent decree or entered into a settlement agreement in lawsuits challenging unconstitutional censorship by prison officials; the other states include Washington, Oregon, California, Nevada, Kansas, Alabama, Virginia, Michigan, and Massachusetts. [See: PLN, Nov. 2010, p.46; May 2010, p.8].

Only one other state – Florida – censors PLN statewide, and a lawsuit challenging that censorship is scheduled to go to trial in federal court in August 2013.
Note: If New York state prisoners are aware of censorship of PLN’s monthly publication, correspondence or book orders by the NYDOCCS, they should contact us with details at Prison Legal News, Attn: NY Censorship, P.O. Box 1151, Lake Worth, FL 33460.