A federal judge has sided with the Cook County Sheriff’s
Office and its policy of keeping inmates at the county jail from reading
magazines focused on the legal rights of prisoners.
In a memorandum opinion and order issued Nov. 21, U.S.
District Judge Joan B. Gottschall denied a motion for preliminary injunction
filed in July by Human Rights Defense Center, of Lake Worth, Fla., which publishes
a monthly journal titled “Prison Legal News: Dedicated to Protecting Human
Rights.” The agency says Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart and County Jail Executive
Director Nneka Jones Tapia have official policies keeping the journal and other
such publications from their prisoners, and that such policies violate the
publication’s First and 14th Amendment rights.
Between the July complaint and Gottschall’s opinion, the
jail in September instituted a mail room policy change that county officials
say makes “Prison Legal News” available to inmates in common areas, law
libraries and in some cases by subscription. Gottschall wrote the county has
not fully clarified its policy with the court, while Human Rights Defense
Center argues the changes do not fully satisfy the constitutional concerns the
Gottschall’s opinion cited testimony from Daniel Korso,
deputy chief of the county’s correctional staff, negating the county’s argument
the publication is widely available to inmates, allowing the complaint to
survive a mootness claim. She further rejected an estoppel claim the county
raised regarding the 2015 federal court opinion in Koger v. Dart, which considered a question of “the constitutionality
of a total ban on newspapers,” a question the Human Rights Defense Center
complaint does not raise.
In considering the preliminary injunction request,
Gottschall questioned if the First Amendment claim would succeed on its own
merits. She cited the 1987 U.S. Supreme Court opinion in Turner v. Safley, which established criteria a prison system must
meet to legally restrict prisoner access to certain publications.
Gottschall determined the jail’s restrictions can rationally
be considered legitimate means of preserving security, but also noted there is
no alternative means for the publication to exercise its free speech rights. She
also said the county fails to prove its argument that allowing the publication
would negatively effect inmates and prison staff.
However, while Gottschall is not satisfied with the jail’s
efforts thus far to make “Prison Legal News” available to inmates — notably compared
to its availability to inmates at other facilities nationwide — she did find
the county’s attempts “indicated a willingness to provide ‘Prison Legal News’
in some capacity at the jail indicates the existence of an easy and obvious
alternative to any prior refusal to make this publication available.” That was
enough for her to deny the request for preliminary injunction.
With respect to the due process claim, Gottschall noted the
Human Rights Defense Center “hardly elaborates upon specific aspects of
defendants’ mailroom policy or practice that it finds objectionable, and provides
no specific details regarding the rejection/censorship of its publications in
this case.” Likewise, the county has not detailed its policies that would
refute the claim, leading Gottschall to suggest the due process claim could
succeed at trial.
In considering the Center’s argument the jail policy has
caused irreparable harm, based primarily on the suggestion “Prison Legal News must
be delivered to detainees quickly, lest the news become stale or irrelevant,” Gottschall
wrote that position was “severely undermined by the fact that plaintiff waited
over a year to file its complaint following the first alleged instance of
Ultimately, while Gottschall agreed it is important to
determine how the jail is handling the publication, she determined the Center
is not entitled to the “extraordinary remedy” a preliminary injunction
Prison Legal News was represented in the action by attorneys with the firm of Loevy & Loevy, of Chicago.