GREENEVILLE — The Sullivan County Sheriff’s Office denies it is censoring and refusing to deliver publications and newsletters to inmates held at the Sullivan County Jail, and contends that no constitutional rights were violated by any of the department’s polices and procedures.
The department’s assertion is in response to a federal lawsuit filed by Prison Legal News — a project of the Human Rights Defense Center, a Florida-based nonprofit organization whose mission is public education, prisoner education, advocacy and outreach in support of prisoners’ rights.
PLN filed the lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Greeneville on Oct. 10 naming Sullivan County, the sheriff’s department and Sheriff Wayne Anderson as the defendants.
PLN claims the department has been censoring and refusing to deliver its material to inmates held at the jail.
Founded in 1990, PLN publishes and distributes a monthly journal of news and analysis and certain books about the criminal justice system and legal issues affecting prisoners. PLN has approximately 7,000 subscribers in the United States and overseas and distributes its publications to prisoners and law libraries in 2,200 correctional facilities across the country.
According to the lawsuit, PLN claims its publications and monthly newsletter are not being delivered to prisoners held at the Sullivan County Jail in violation of the First and 14th Amendments. The defendants have also rejected book catalogs and offers, informational brochures, subscription forms and renewal letters and fundraising letters from PLN, the lawsuit states.
In a response filed in November, the defendants deny the allegations, pointing out that several of the inmates were released prior to when the PLN material arrived in the mail for them. As per jail policy, if mail arrives for an inmate who has already been released, the mail is returned to sender.
One inmate, Ahmad Abdul-Khaaliq, had several aliases which may have contributed to the problem, the response states.
In addition, no inmates have ever filed a grievance with the jail regarding Prison Legal News mail, the response states.
From February 2012 to the present, PLN claims it has mailed hundreds of copies of its monthly journal and dozens of copies of informational brochure packs and its book “Protecting Your Health & Safety: A Litigation Guide for Inmates” to inmates at the Sullivan County Jail.
The lawsuit claims a former inmate notified PLN the jail had refused to deliver the vast majority of the items, while 30 copies of the book and 90 copies of the newsletter were undelivered and sitting on a office desk.
PLN claims it has received its newsletters back from the Sullivan County Jail marked “Post cards only! Can not have” or “Not here!” The brochure packs were returned to PLN with “RTS” or “not here” written on them.
For the past two years, the Sullivan County Jail had a postcards only mail policy with all other mail, except legal mail, to be returned to sender. No packages were allowed unless approved by the jail’s facility administrator.
The policy was enacted to help stem the flow of contraband, particularly drugs, from entering the jail and to cut down on the amount of time spent inspecting letters and packages.
However, the postcards only mail policy was recently abandoned, effective Nov. 4, 2013, following a recommendation from the Tennessee Corrections Institute.
According to an affidavit from Corrections Maj. Greg Simcox, with the SCSO, a TCI official conducted an inspection of the Sullivan County Jail in October 2013. During that inspection, the official said TCI now recommends local jails abandon postcard only policies due to complaints the TCI has been receiving.
Simcox said on that day, he began the process of abandoning the postcard only mail policy.
PLN claims the defendants have allowed other magazines into the jail, including O Magazine, Men’s Journal, Glamour, Outdoor Life, Field & Stream, Hot Rod, Us and Star. By permitting access to these periodicals, while banning access to core political speech, the defendants have engaged in unlawful discrimination based on content, the lawsuit claims.
Magazines are available for purchase from the jail commissary; however, generally no magazines, other than Prison Legal News and some religious material, are allowed into the jail through the mail, the response states.
The defendants deny that they are required by law to make inmates captive audiences to the solicitation and marketing efforts of Prison Legal News.
“It has never been the policy of the Sullivan County Jail to intercept Prison Legal News mail and stop it from being delivered to the inmate it is addressed to,” Simcox wrote in his affidavit.
PLN is seeking an injunction against the defendants and a declaration that the department’s mail policy violates the Constitution.