March 1, 2011, New York and Charlottesville, VA – Today, t he Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) and the National Lawyers Guild (NLG) announced a settlement in their 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, from all Virginia prisons. The settlement requires the Virginia Department of Corrections to remove the handbook from the disapproved publications list, post a notice to this effect in all prisons, and allow Virginia prisoners to receive the handbook in the future from CCR and the NLG without preapproval.
Said Ian Head of the Center for Constitutional Rights, who co-authored the Jailhouse Lawyer’s Handbook along with CCR Attorney Rachel Meeropol “Prisoners consistently tell us that legal resources like the Jailhouse Lawyer’s Handbook are vital to challenging poor conditions and abuse they may face in prison. This is a victory for all Virginia prisoners, as well as their families and friends, and a signal to prison officials nationwide.”
The settlement requires that the VDOC make available five copies of the current Jailhouse Lawyer’s Handbook and a new version to be released later this year in all prison libraries. Furthermore, prisoners such as those in Special Housing Units who do not have access to the law library must receive a notice alerting them to the availability of the handbook. The settlement includes compensation for damages and attorneys’ fees.
Said NLG attorney Jeff Fogel, “At the outset, prison officials realized that their decision to ban the Jailhouse Lawyer’s Handbook was indefensible. We would not settle, however, until they also agreed to allow prisoners in Virginia to receive the handbook without prior approval, thereby allowing friends and family to have the handbook sent to their loved ones. As a result of this settlement, all prison law libraries will have copies of the handbook, giving prisoners a clear and understandable guide to challenge the unconstitutional conditions many of them face. At the same time, it is a large crack in the door of a censorship regime that was out of control.”
The Jailhouse Lawyer’s Handbook 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 the Center for Constitutional Rights and the National Lawyers Guild 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 it was banned after the VDOC asserted that the entire publication constituted “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 the Center for Constitutional Rights 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 claimed that the VDOC banned the Jailhouse Lawyer’s Handbook in violation of the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution.