Johnson County Jail attracts lawsuit for withholding mail from inmates

Johnson County Board of Commissioners and the Johnson County sheriff sued by nonprofit

Inmate. // Courtesy Human Right Defense Center

On September 14, the Human Rights Defense Center, a Florida-based nonprofit that focuses on prisoner rights, filed a lawsuit against the Johnson County Board of Commissioners and the Johnson County sheriff, Calvin Hayden, accusing them of withholding mail sent to inmates at the New Century Adult Detention Center in Olathe.

The lawsuit states that though the jail has an official mail policy in place, its correctional officers have been enforcing the policy at random. A press release from Prison Legal News, a monthly magazine and online periodical run by HRDC, also established that the lawsuit, “seeks injunctive relief, declaratory relief, and damages against the defendants.”

Since July 2020, HRDC has mailed at least 58 publications, including their two monthly educational publications, Prison Legal News and Criminal Legal News, as well as other legal books and educational materials. Some of these educational materials contain information on the COVID-19 pandemic. Mail has been sent back to HRDC marked with “Return to Sender”, “Refused”, or “Not Approved”, among others.

“HRDC’s books and magazines inform prisoners about educational opportunities, their constitutional rights, and means for self-improvement while incarcerated,” noted HRDC General Counsel Daniel Marshall in a recent article from Prison Legal News. “Banning these publications from reaching those who are in jail is an affront to the First Amendment, as well as counterproductive to the goals of security and rehabilitation.”

Potential threatening materials are routinely reviewed, censored, or withheld at prisons and jails. However, 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.  Some of these books included “A Clockwork Orange,” “Invisible Man,” “Twelve Years a Slave,” as well as other publications such as, “Excel 2016 for Dummies,” “Tarot Fundamentals” and issues of Bloomberg Businessweek, Us Weekly, and Elle.

Upon the public backlash that resulted from the tweet, Department of Corrections Secretary Jeff Zmuda removed the list soon after.

This isn’t the first time HRDC has made itself known in Kansas, suing the Shawnee County Jail in Topeka over a similar issue more than seven years ago. “These policies banning books and magazines are blatantly unconstitutional. And I have no idea why they keep doing it in Kansas,” said Paul Wright, executive director of HRDC.

Categories: Politics