For Immediate Release
Groups Sue Virginia Prisons for Unconstitutional Banning of Jailhouse Lawyer’s Handbook
New York and Charlottesville, VA - The Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) and the National
Lawyers Guild (NLG) today filed a 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 (JLH), from all Virginia prisons.
The JLH 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 CCR and the
NLG 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
the VDOC asserts that the entire publication constitutes "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 CCR 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 claims that the VDOC banned the JLH in violation of
the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution.
Said NLG attorney Jeff Fogel, "This effort to prevent
prisoners from challenging the conditions of their confinement in court
is not only patently unconstitutional, it drives them to find extralegal
means to resolve their disputes, contrary to any conceivable
According to attorneys, there is ample recent history of censorship in
Virginia prisons. A local book store had been providing free used books
to prisoners until stopped by VDOC, though the department reversed its
position after negative publicity. Fogel and CCR cooperating attorney
Steven Rosenfield are also representing the publication Prison Legal
News, which has a pending case involving the banning of most of its
issues of since 2007. A Nation of Islam member recently challenged the
banning of nearly all issues of its publication The Final Call due to
its position that Black people are entitled to their own nation. Issues
of Newsweek, US News & World Report, Time Magazine and mainstream
newspapers also have been banned, prompting a critical editorial from
The Daily Progress in Charlottesville. Earlier this year, VDOC was given
the "Free Speech Muzzle Award" by the Jefferson Center for Free Speech
for their recent prohibition on talking CD's, including religious
Said CCR Attorney Rachel Meeropol, who co-authored the
handbook along with CCR staff member Ian Head,
"Virginia prisons are banning a document that explains to prisoners how
they can exercise their Constitutional rights to protect themselves from
physical abuse, poor conditions and other mistreatment. If it is
dangerous to educate people about the Constitution, there are a lot of
law schools who are going to be in trouble."
The Center for Constitutional Rights is dedicated to advancing and protecting the rights guaranteed by the United States Constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Founded in 1966 by attorneys who represented civil rights movements in the South, CCR is a non-profit legal and educational organization committed to the creative use of law as a positive force for social change.