Prisoners’ Right to Legal Resource Restored in Settlement

CONTACT: Jen Nessel, CCR 212.614.6449, jnessel@ccrjustice.org; Shonna
Carter, Riptide Communications, 212.260.5000

Victory in CCR and NLG Suit Against Virginia Prisons for
Unconstitutional Censorship of Jailhouse Lawyer’s Handbook
Prisoners’ Right to Legal Resource Restored in Settlement

March 1, 2011, New York and Charlottesville, VA – Today, t he Center
for Constitutional Rights (CCR) and the National Lawyers Guild (NLG)
announced a settlement in their lawsuit in the Western District of
Virginia challenging the Virginia Department of Corrections’ (VDOC)
decision to ban their joint publication, the Jailhouse Lawyer’s
Handbook, from all Virginia prisons. The settlement requires the
Virginia Department of Corrections to remove the handbook from the
disapproved publications list, post a notice to this effect in all
prisons, and allow Virginia prisoners to receive the handbook in the
future from CCR and the NLG without preapproval.
Said Ian Head of the Center for Constitutional Rights, who co-authored
the Jailhouse Lawyer’s Handbook along with CCR Attorney Rachel
Meeropol “Prisoners consistently tell us that legal resources like the
Jailhouse Lawyer’s Handbook are vital to challenging poor conditions
and abuse they may face in prison. This is a victory for all Virginia
prisoners, as well as their families and friends, and a signal to
prison officials nationwide.”
The settlement requires that the VDOC make available five copies of
the current Jailhouse Lawyer’s Handbook and a new version to be
released later this year in all prison libraries. Furthermore,
prisoners such as those in Special Housing Units who do not have
access to the law library must receive a notice alerting them to the
availability of the handbook. The settlement includes compensation for
damages and attorneys’ fees.
Said NLG attorney Jeff Fogel, “At the outset, prison officials
realized that their decision to ban the Jailhouse Lawyer’s Handbook
was indefensible. We would not settle, however, until they also
agreed to allow prisoners in Virginia to receive the handbook without
prior approval, thereby allowing friends and family to have the
handbook sent to their loved ones. As a result of this settlement, all
prison law libraries will have copies of the handbook, giving
prisoners a clear and understandable guide to challenge the
unconstitutional conditions many of them face. At the same time, it is
a large crack in the door of a censorship regime that was out of
control.”
The Jailhouse Lawyer’s Handbook is a free resource for prisoners who
wish to learn about legal options, including how to file a lawsuit in
federal court to challenge abuse by guards or unsafe conditions. Since
its initial publication in 2003, demand for the handbook has grown
substantially; both the Center for Constitutional Rights and the
National Lawyers Guild provide copies to several thousand prisoners
every year.
The self-help publication explains the court system, shows methods for
legal research, and summarizes prisoners’ constitutional rights. It
contains no material that might cause legitimate security concerns,
yet it was banned after the VDOC asserted that the entire publication
constituted “Material whose content could be detrimental to the
security, good order, discipline of the facility, or offender
rehabilitative efforts or the safety or health of offenders, staff, or
others.” The Department of Corrections failed to notify the Center for
Constitutional Rights or the NLG that their handbook was being banned
and failed to give either the opportunity to be heard as is required
by law. The lawsuit claimed that the VDOC banned the Jailhouse
Lawyer’s Handbook in violation of the First and Fourteenth Amendments
to the United States Constitution.

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