Human rights group sues Kentucky Corrections over book censorship

A human rights organization is suing the Kentucky Department of Corrections for allegedly censoring books. 

The Human Rights Defense Center, a Florida based nonprofit which educates “prisoners and the public about the constitutional rights of prisoners,” argues the Department of Corrections violated its free speech, due process and equal protection rights.

“For what it’s worth, our books aren’t being censored anywhere else across the country,” Paul Wright, executive director of HRDC, said.

Since July 2016, books such as the “Prisoner’s Diabetes Handbook,” “Prisoners’ Self-Help Litigation Manual” and the “Merriam-Webster Dictionary of Law” were not delivered to their intended recipient, according to the complaint.

Wright said they’ve never had a problem with the Kentucky corrections department before and only in the last year has this become an issue. He said he has no idea why this is happening, but said sometimes the reason can be as simple as “a new guy in the mail room.”

In the past year, HRDC has sent 158 books to various prisoners held by the correctional department. At least 26 books the human rights center sent were censored by the department, according to the complaint.

HRDC has its own publication, the Prison Legal News, but they distribute other books to prisons and correctional facilities and have done so for over 26 years.

One instance of censorship was when a copy of “Prisoner’s Diabetes Handbook” was returned to the HRDC, for a violation of policy due to “Colored paper/envelope/ink,” “Stickers,” “Contraband” and “Other.”

Furthermore, the complaint states how, in several instances, “Defendants failed to provide HRDC any notice or opportunity to appeal these censorship decisions.” In August of last year, HRDC received 17 separate “Notice of Unauthorized Mail” forms from the department.

“The forms did not state what the unauthorized mail was, but presumably were in reference to books that HRDC had sent to prisoners at the Kentucky State Penitentiary earlier that month,” the complaint reads.

The complaint was filed July 17 in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Kentucky. Current and former correctional employees are named as defendants. Former corrections commissioner Rodney Ballard and acting commissioner Jim Erwin are among those named.

Lisa Lamb, director of communications for the department, said she is unable to comment on pending litigation.

The Prison Legal News is not being censored, but the HRDC claims the department “have adopted a policy and practice of arbitrarily prohibiting receipt of various HRDC’s book sent to individual prisoners held by the KDOC.”

The complaint states the department’s mail policy and practice is unconstitutional, violating the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, for its use of “a pre-approved vendor list” which “excludes some publishers and vendors, like HRDC” from sending their books to Kentucky prisoners while allowing other publishers access.

Additionally, the complaint claims a violation of the First Amendment for violating the rights of HRDC and others who have “attempted to or intend to communicate with prisoners held by the KDOC.”

As well as a violation of due process under the Fourteenth Amendment, arguing HRDC and other sends have a right “to receive notice of and an opportunity to appeal Defendants’ decisions to censor their written speech.”

The Kentucky department found itself in legal trouble over mail in March 2016 when the American Civil Liberties Union challenged the Eastern Kentucky Correctional Complex over a policy which refused to let inmates receive LGBT magazines or materials deemed to “promote homosexuality.”

According to the complaint, HRDC has attempted to resolve the censorship issues multiple times, but has received no response.

Greg Belzley, local counsel of Belzely Bathurst Attorney’s representing HRDC, said the HRDC is one of the few organizations which responds to the legal needs of prisoners. Belzley’s firm also has several other pending cases against the corrections department.

“The protection afforded to them by the First Amendment is extremely important and needs to be defended,” he said.

Reaching 2,600 correctional facilities across the U.S., HRDC has sent publications to 12 facilities overseen by Kentucky corrections. These include the Kentucky State Penitentiary, Kentucky State Reformatory and the Luther Luckett Correctional Complex in Oldham County.

Belzley said he believes the law is established and in favor of HRDC and that legal precedent is on their side.

“I look forward to defending HRDC’s rights and the rights of prisoner’s in Kentucky’s penal institutions to receive their publications,” he said.

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