July 21, 2010; Source: Bloomberg BusinessWeek | We don’t know if any of the material contained in the book is helping them prepare their case, but two nonprofit civil rights groups are suing the Virginia Department of Corrections over claims it violated prisoners’ First Amendment rights by preventing inmates from reading a book that tells how to bring lawsuits. The National Lawyers Guild and the Center for Constitutional Rights want the court to force the prison to lift the ban on, Jailhouse Lawyer’s Handbook: How to Bring a Federal Lawsuit to Challenge Violations of Your Rights in Prison.
Officials argue that the book, made available by its publisher free of charge to inmates, should be kept out the hands of prisoners because it is “detrimental to the security, good order, discipline of the facility, or offender rehabilitative efforts or the safety or health of offenders, staff, or others.” Rachel Meeropol, an attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights, and co-author of the manual, said the ban has implications beyond the prison. “If it is dangerous to educate people about the Constitution, there are a lot of law schools who are going to be in trouble,” she said.
While regulations give prisons the right to monitor what inmates read, publishers are supposed to be notified in advance if officials object to any reading material. The lawsuit charges that the prison failed to notify the publisher before imposing the ban.—Bruce Trachtenberg