July 21, 2010, New York and Charlottesville, VA – The Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) and the National Lawyers Guild (NLG) today filed a lawsuit in the Western District of Virginia challenging the Virginia Department of Corrections' (VDOC) decision to ban their joint publication, the Jailhouse Lawyer's Handbook (JLH), from all Virginia prisons.
The JLH is a free resource for prisoners who wish to learn about legal options, including how to file a lawsuit in federal court to challenge abuse by guards or unsafe conditions. Since its initial publication in 2003, demand for the handbook has grown substantially; both CCR and the NLG provide copies to several thousand prisoners every year.
The self-help publication explains the court system, shows methods for legal research, and summarizes prisoners’ constitutional rights. It contains no material that might cause legitimate security concerns, yet the VDOC asserts that the entire publication constitutes "Material whose content could be detrimental to the security, good order, discipline of the facility, or offender rehabilitative efforts or the safety or health of offenders, staff, or others." The Department of Corrections failed to notify CCR or the NLG that their handbook was being banned and failed to give either the opportunity to be heard as is required by law. The lawsuit claims that the VDOC banned the JLH in violation of the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution.
Said NLG attorney Jeff Fogel, “This effort to prevent prisoners from challenging the conditions of their confinement in court is not only patently unconstitutional, it drives them to find extralegal means to resolve their disputes, contrary to any conceivable penological objective.”
According to attorneys, there is ample recent history of censorship in Virginia prisons. A local book store had been providing free used books to prisoners until stopped by VDOC, though the department reversed its position after negative publicity. Fogel and CCR cooperating attorney Steven Rosenfield are also representing the publication Prison Legal News, which has a pending case involving the banning of most of its issues of since 2007. A Nation of Islam member recently challenged the banning of nearly all issues of its publication The Final Call due to its position that Black people are entitled to their own nation. Issues of Newsweek, US News & World Report, Time Magazine and mainstream newspapers also have been banned, prompting a critical editorial from The Daily Progress in Charlottesville. Earlier this year, VDOC was given the "Free Speech Muzzle Award" by the Jefferson Center for Free Speech for their recent prohibition on talking CD's, including religious sermons.
Said CCR Attorney Rachel Meeropol, who co-authored the handbook along with CCR staff member Ian Head, “Virginia prisons are banning a document that explains to prisoners how they can exercise their Constitutional rights to protect themselves from physical abuse, poor conditions and other mistreatment. If it is dangerous to educate people about the Constitution, there are a lot of law schools who are going to be in trouble.”