PHOENIX -- A national newspaper for and about prison inmates is accusing the state Department of Corrections of censorship.
The lawsuit filed in federal court contends top agency officials purposely and illegally withheld copies of Prison Legal News from inmates who subscribe. And even in situations where the newspaper eventually was delivered, portions had been redacted.
Attorney Lisa Ells acknowledged the state prison system has various regulations dealing with what kinds of material is off-limits to inmates.
That includes pictures and text that "may encourage unacceptable sexual or hostile behaviors.'' Also forbidden are policies with "sexually explicit material.''
But Ells said what agency chief Charles Ryan and his staff are censoring are factual stories about inmates being raped or abused by prison guards and staffers. That includes one incident in Arizona which wound up in federal court.
She said Department of Correction staffers are effectively blocking delivery of publications "that describe sexual acts in a non-salacious way as part of an article reporting on the facts of a court case or published legal decision,'' And that, Ells argued, violates not only the rights of inmates to the information but the rights of the newspaper to distribute it.
In an interview Tuesday with Capitol Media Services, Ells said what makes the agency's actions unusual is that the same information is readily available to inmates.
"The issues contained articles that had textual descriptions only, no photographs, no pictures, of either pending lawsuits or court opinions that the inmates could get from their law library about cases that involve non-consensual sex in incarcerated areas,'' she said. Ells said federal appeals court have ruled that kind of legal information, presented in a "non-salacious'' manner, `is core First Amendment speech.''
She also contends the state may be targeting Prison Legal News because it informs inmates of their rights.
"PLN publishes and distributes content concerning the rights of prisoners and the means by which they may obtain relief from unconstitutional conditions of confinement,'' Ells wrote in her pleadings. She said her client believes that Ryan and his staff "have retaliated against PLN'' by refusing to deliver the papers.
Ells is asking a federal judge to declare that the actions of the Department of Corrections are unconstitutional and bar the agency from engaging in similar conduct in the future. Her lawsuit also seeks unspecified punitive damages.
Corrections spokesman Andrew Wilder said the agency had redacted a "handful'' of sentences, saying the move was consistent with department policy and done to ensure "the safe, secure and orderly operation of our prisons.''
According to the lawsuit, Prison Legal News is distributed to prisoners and law librarians in about 2,600 federal and state institutions. It has 97 subscribers to its monthly publication at Arizona state facilities.
"For more than 25 years, the core of PLN's mission has been public education, advocacy and outreach on behalf of, and for the purpose of assisting, prisoners who seek legal redress for infringements of their constitutionally guaranteed and other basic human rights,'' Ells wrote. She said the publication "engages in core protected speech'' on matters of public concern, like the operation of prisons, conditions, inmates health, safety and rights.
Ells said the problems started last year when the department would not deliver the March, April, July and October issues. She said the agency never returned the items or even told Prison Legal News of the action, with the paper finding out about the censored issues from subscribers.
And Ells said there is no formal process for the newspaper to appeal such decisions.
The "why'' of the decision is less clear.
Ells said an inquiry by the American Civil Liberties Union into the failure to distribute the March 2014 edition resulted in a response saying it was excluded because of "riots/work stoppages/resistance'' and "unacceptable sexual or hostile behaviors.''
But Ells said that notice never said which articles or pages allegedly violated the policies. And she said nothing in that edition even fits those definitions.
What is likely, she told the court, is the Department of Corrections objected to an article which said a federal appeals court has ruled that sexual contact between a prison guard and an inmate in Idaho is presumed to be coercive.
The state withheld the following month's edition, at least temporarily. Ells said that is likely because of an article about a criminal case in which a prison kitchen supervisor at a federal facility in Arizona was found guilty of having non-consensual sexual contact with two prisoners.
Ells cited similar problems with other editions which dealt with sexual contact between inmates and prison staff.
In her legal briefs, Ells said the agency's policies are overbroad.
"Allowing PLN to distribute publications with articles that contain discussion of sexual acts in a non-salacious manner for the purpose of discussing the fact underlying a court case will not have any negative impact on the operation of Arizona Department of Corrections facilities or programs,'' Ells wrote.
She also specifically objects to the fact that the Department of Corrections policies "explicitly prohibits appeal'' of any decision to exclude a publication. Ells said that violates constitutional requirements that protect those who send mail to prisoners.