What First Amendment?

Go to prison, lose your rights

What First Amendment?:Here it is the third week in March, and so far this month we haven't written about anyone suing the Dallas County jail. So sorry. We've been distracted by March Madness. (Go Salukis!)

Back to business: The latest plaintiff up to the plate is Prison Legal News, which has filed a federal lawsuit in Dallas County challenging the jail's year-old ban on publication subscriptions for inmates. PLN, a 17-year-old monthly magazine that reports on legal issues affecting prisoners and other criminal justice matters, says the ban violates inmates' First Amendment rights. That's a position shared by virtually every federal court that's ever considered the issue, including the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which in a 1986 case concerning Midland County said—and we're summing up here—you can't do that.

But we're talking the Dallas County jail here, notorious for losing and/or offing inmates, abusing the mentally ill, etc., so what are the odds that little things like plainly written court decisions and the Constitution are going to make a diff? Where do you think we are, in America?

"They seem to have a rather callous disregard for the Constitution there," says PLN's editor, Paul Wright.

That explains why his publication didn't simply send a letter to the county pointing out it was breaking the rules and hope for reason to carry the day: Without a court order or consent decree, Wright doubts the jail would consistently obey the law on what prisoners can access.

Some jails have argued that prisoners can watch TV news in jail, so they don't need access to publications, says Scott Medlock, prisoners' rights attorney with the Texas Civil Rights Project, who is representing PLN. The courts say otherwise, as does common sense: If you're in the Dallas lock-up, what do you need more, a publication about your legal rights, or news on the latest car wreck or Britney's haircut?

Actually, in our jail, a magazine on home medical treatment or psychiatric care might be more useful, but the inmates can't get those either. In any event, they'll never get Penthouse or The Anarchist's Cookbook, Medlock says. There are some rules.

When PLN filed its suit, it had 10 subscribers at the jail, Wright says. Since then, two have either been transferred or released, which is good news: They got out alive.

We called the Dallas County Sheriff's Office for their side of this story but didn't hear back by press time.

 
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