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ACLU battles Nevada prison system over censorship

CARSON CITY — A First Amendment battle is underway to get Nevada prison inmates access to publications that are now off-limits based on what the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada contends is an unconstitutional Corrections Department policy.

The lawsuit has been filed in U.S. District Court in Las Vegas on behalf of Prison Legal News, a publication aimed at protecting inmate legal rights and educating inmates on various issues.

But ACLU Legal Director Staci Pratt said the issue goes well beyond the one publication to encompass the constitutional rights of inmates and publishers to communicate with each other.

The questionable policies on access to materials can affect children of inmates who might want to send an incarcerated parent a report card or other communication, she said.

There are 2.7 million children nationally who have a parent in prison, Pratt said.

“The First Amendment does not end at the prison door. Censorship of legal materials through the establishment of arbitrary procedural roadblocks does not comport with the Nevada Department of Corrections’ constitutional obligations.”

Pratt said ACLU officials are in discussions with the Nevada attorney general’s office and expect the matter to be resolved without needing to pursue the federal litigation filed in June.

“We believe they will do the right thing and alter the current procedures to comply with the demands of the Constitution,” she said.

Officials at the Department of Corrections said they don’t comment on active lawsuits.

The agency adopted a new temporary policy on publications in June just before the lawsuit was filed. It prohibits information related to security issues such as how to make weapons. Sexually explicit publications are also prohibited.

But it also states that all inmates should have access to books through approved vendors, and it provides for an appeals process if a request is denied.

Paul Wright, editor of Prison Legal News, said the agency’s policy restrictions are “simply proxies used to justify illegal censorship by prison officials and have no connection with legitimate security-related interests.”

The June issue of Prison Legal News contains a variety of articles, including a state-by-state analysis of prison closures, a report on a New York decision that county jails do not need to provide law libraries and one titled “How the Prison-Industrial Complex Destroys Lives,” among others.

Wright said the magazine has about 50 Nevada inmate subscribers, so there is no consistent blanket ban at all the state institutions. The problem is more related to the publication’s book list, which includes such titles as “Beyond Bars, Rejoining Society After Prison” and “Criminal Law in a Nutshell.”

The books ordered by Nevada inmates are frequently sent back by the agency, and Wright said it appears to be because of hostility to the organization’s mission, which is to help inmates improve themselves. The publication had sued the Nevada Corrections Department on the issue, winning a judgment and settlement in 2000 in which the state agreed that prisoners would be able to subscribe to the publications of their choice.

But Pratt said the agency never honored the agreement, resulting in the lawsuit filed June 27.

Prison Legal News is represented also by the San Francisco law firm of Rosen Bien Galvan & Grunfeld and the Human Rights Defense Center, which publishes Prison Legal News.

Contact Capital Bureau reporter Sean Whaley at swhaley@reviewjournal.com or 775-687-3900. Follow him on Twitter @seanw801.

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