Court Sides With Supermax In Prison Magazine Censorship Case

Supermax facility outside Florence, in southern Colorado
Brennan Linsley/AP
The Supermax facility outside Florence, in southern Colorado.

A federal appeals court in Denver has ruled that officials at a supermax prison in Colorado sufficiently changed their policies and corrected their mistakes after refusing to distribute a magazine that provides legal information to inmates.

The three-judge panel of the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Friday rejected an argument by the magazine’s publisher, Prison Legal News, that a court order was warranted to prevent future censorship.

“The Warden has declared that PLN’s future publications substantially similar to the previously rejected publications will not be rejected,” said the opinion written by Judge Scott Matheson, Jr.

The dispute centers on the U.S. Bureau of Prison’s decision to not distribute 11 Prison Legal News magazine issues between 2010 and 2014. The reason, prison officials said, was that those 11 magazines named individual inmates and employees in the Administrative Maximum Facility in Florence, Colorado.

The facility is the highest-security prison in the U.S., housing inmates such as Unabomber Theodore Kaczyinski, Sept. 11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui and, more recently, drug kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman.

Prison Legal News, which is owned by the nonprofit Human Rights Defense Center, is a monthly magazine that aims to inform prisoners and others about criminal justice topics, including prisoner rights, health care, labor and misconduct and abuse by prison officials.

Paul Wright, editor of Prison Legal News, expressed disappointment in the appeals court ruling, noting that this was the second time the Bureau of Prisons had censored the magazine and the “second time they claimed the suit was moot by capitulating at the last minute and delivering the censored publications years after they were published.”

The Human Rights Defense Center was reviewing the ruling and had not decided whether to pursue further court action, Wright said.

The magazine’s publishers sued the Bureau of Prisons in 2015 over claims that prison officials violated the inmates’ First and Fifth Amendment rights by refusing to distribute the magazine. They asked a district judge to order prison officials to deliver those 11 magazines and all future publications unless there is a valid reason for not doing so.

After attorneys for the Bureau of Prisons failed to get the lawsuit thrown out in 2016, prison officials distributed the magazines and in 2017 changed their policies so that a publication can’t be rejected for distribution just because it names an inmate or employee.

That prompted the judge to dismiss the Prison Legal News’ lawsuit as moot. The magazine appealed to the 10th Circuit, arguing that prison officials only changed their policy because of the lawsuit, and they could easily change it back to censor the magazine in the future.

But the judges ruled that the 2017 policy change was enough to satisfy the law and upheld the district judge’s ruling.