Prisoner Advocacy Group Decries Censorship at Ohio Prison

TOLEDO, Ohio (CN) – A nonprofit advocating for prisoner rights filed a federal lawsuit claiming softcover books it sent to inmates at a privately run prison in central Ohio were sent back because they weren’t pre-approved by management.

The complaint was filed Tuesday in Toledo federal court by the Human Rights Defense Center, or HRDC, a Washington charitable corporation whose stated mission is to educate and assist prisoners seeking legal redress for infringements of their constitutionally guaranteed rights and basic human rights.

Management & Training Corporation, a Utah-based corporation that operates North Central Correctional Complex, or NCCC, is the primary defendant named in the case. Also named as defendants are Warden Neil Turner and other unidentified agents involved in the adoption and implementation of mail policies at NCCC.

HRDC is perhaps best known for publishing and distributing Prison Legal News, an award-winning monthly magazine containing news and analysis about prisons, prisoners’ rights, court opinions and other matters of interest to incarcerated individuals.

In addition to Prison Legal News, HRDC publishes and distributes a catalog of softcover books to educate prisoners about criminal justice policies, legal research, health care issues and other similar topics.

In its lawsuit, HRDC says NCCC refused to deliver 37 paperback books it has sent to various NCCC prisoners since December.

All of the books were returned to HRDC in their original packaging with writing on the outside stating that the contents were “not allowed” or not authorized, according to the complaint.

The rejected books included “The Habeas Citebook: Ineffective Assistance of Counsel,” which describes the procedural and substantive complexities of federal habeas corpus litigation, “Protecting Your Health and Safety,” which describes the rights, protections and legal remedies available to prisoners, and “Prisoner Diabetes Handbook,” which provides guidance on treating and managing diabetes while incarcerated.

According to HRDC’s lawsuit, NCCC’s mail policy arbitrarily prohibits the delivery of books that have not been pre-approved by prison management or are sent by publishers that are not on a list of pre-approved vendors.

“HRDC has sent its monthly magazine, Prison Legal News, to numerous prisoners at the NCCC. The magazine has not been censored by defendants; instead, it is delivered to the intended prisoner-recipients,” the complaint states. “Unlike the magazine, defendants have adopted a policy and practice of arbitrarily prohibiting receipt of various HRDC’s books sent to individual prisoners at NCCC.”

HRDC argues that this policy violates its First Amendment right to free speech and its Fourteenth Amendment right to due process and equal protection.

“Defendants’ actions and inactions were and are motivated by ill motive and intent, and were and are all committed under color of law with deliberate indifference to HRDC’s rights,” the complaint states.

The nonprofit seeks a declaration that NCCC’s mail policies are unconstitutional, a permanent injunction prohibiting NCCC from censoring mail without due process, compensatory and punitive damages, and attorney’s fees.

HRDC has pursued similar actions against prisons across the country, but Tuesday’s complaint is the organization’s first lawsuit filed in Ohio.

The group’s director called Management & Training Corporation’s policy on books “shameful” in a statement issued Wednesday.

“MTC has a policy and practice of censoring the free speech of publishers and book distributors around the country. As a for-profit, private prison company, it is shameful that they are being paid by taxpayers to violate the First Amendment rights of publishers and prisoners alike,” said Paul Wright, executive director of HRDC. Based in Lake Worth, Fla., Wright is also editor of Prison Legal News.

HRDC is represented in the complaint by Alphonse Gerhardstein and Adam Gerhardstein of the Cincinnati-based Gerhardstein & Branch Co. LPA, as well as its own staff attorneys, Sabarish Neelakanta, Masimba Mutamba and Daniel Marshall.

Representatives from NCCC did not immediately respond Wednesday to a phone call seeking comment on the lawsuit.

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