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Nonprofit Sues Over Alleged Censorship Of Magazines At Johnson County Jail

091520_human rights defense center.jpg_carlos moreno
Carlos Moreno
The Human Rights Defense Center claims that jail officials have withheld its magazine Prison Legal News from inmates.

The lawsuit says that at least 58 items have been rejected, including HRDC’s Prison Legal News and Criminal Legal News, monthly publications that cover criminal justice and prison issues.

A human rights organization is suing the Johnson County Board of Commissioners and the Johnson County sheriff, claiming they’re withholding magazines and other publications from jail inmates.

The Human Rights Defense Center, a Florida-based nonprofit that focuses on prisoner rights, says the staff at the New Century Adult Detention Center has refused to deliver dozens of HRDC mailings to inmates, in violation of their First Amendment rights.

"We sued the Shawnee County jail in Topeka over a similar policy around seven or eight years ago," said Paul Wright, executive director of HRDC. "And these policies banning books and magazines are blatantly unconstitutional. And I have no idea why they keep doing it in Kansas."

The lawsuit, which was filed last week in federal court, says that while the jail has an official mail policy in place, its correctional officers have arbitrarily enforced that policy.

The lawsuit names the Board of Commissioners of Johnson County, the county’s governing body, and Johnson County Sheriff Calvin Hayden, who is responsible for overseeing the jail. It also names unidentified jail officials responsible for carrying out the jail’s policy.

Hayden and Ed Eilert, the chairman of the Board of Commissioners, did not return calls seeking comment.

HRDC says that since July, the jail has refused to deliver books, magazines and other correspondence, including information on the COVID-19 pandemic, to inmates.

“Jail personnel have either failed to notify HRDC when it censored these mailings, or simply returned the mailings to HRDC’s office with no indication as to why they were rejected,” the lawsuit alleges.

The suit says that at least 58 items have been rejected, including HRDC’s Prison Legal News and Criminal Legal News, monthly publications that cover criminal justice and prison issues.

The suit asks the court to issue a preliminary injunction preventing the withholding of the materials. It also seeks unspecified compensatory and punitive damages.

Materials that could threaten security at prisons and jails are routinely reviewed, censored, or withheld. The Kansas Department of Corrections, for example, until recently had banned some 7,000 titles from its prisons across the state, according to a Kansas News Service report last year.

Among the books and magazines it banned were “A Clockwork Orange,” “Invisible Man,” “Twelve Years a Slave,” “Excel 2016 for Dummies,” “Tarot Fundamentals” and issues of Bloomberg Businessweek, Us Weekly and Elle.

The list of banned publications surfaced when an HRDC employee who volunteered for Books for Prisoners, a Seattle-based nonprofit, tweeted the results of an open records request Books for Prisoners had filed with the Kansas Department of Corrections.

Amid widespread criticism, Department of Corrections Secretary Jeff Zmuda eliminated the list shortly afterward. But HRDC says the prison system is continuing to unfairly censor publications.

Dan Margolies has been a reporter for the Kansas City Business Journal, The Kansas City Star, and KCUR Public Radio. He retired as a reporter in December 2022 after a 37-year journalism career.
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