A lawsuit levied against the Columbia County jail has awarded $15,000 to the Prison Legal News (PLN), a free publication that proclaims on its website that it is “protecting human rights.” These are the rights of convicted and alleged criminals who are incarcerated in county jails. On their website, PLN advertises discounted telephone calls while in jail; books titled “Sue the Doctor and Win“ and “authentic videos shot in American prisons” where one video depicts inmates in Lowndes County, Georgia attacking a guard, taking his keys and escaping from jail. They go on to steal a vehicle.
Due to the shrinking budget at the Columbia County Sheriff’s Office, there aren’t enough guards to monitor the mail that comes into the jail and therefore the sheriff made a decision to go with a post card policy. Contraband is easy to hide in mail, such as envelopes and magazines. As you can imagine, criminals can be very creative when sending methamphetamine – a tiny amount of powder – buried in the mail, for instance. The jail requires a minimum of four guards on duty at all times, and they are currently at that level. This makes it impossible to pull a guard off the line to go through incoming mail to look for contraband.
“That’s why we went with post cards,” Sheriff Jeff Dickerson said in a recent interview in his office prior to his appearance on the Lars Larson Radio Show, who supports the Columbia County Jail levy. Sheriff Dickerson continued to explain his reasoning. “That [idea] came from Sheriff Joe down there in Maricopa County (Arizona). And a lot of sheriffs started doing it. The Oregon State Sheriff’s Association said we want to do this too, but not everybody did. Some people said, we’re not doing that. But we thought with our short staffing, this makes perfect sense. We don’t have an individual assigned to this. We would still accomplish the goal to keep contraband, which is dangerous to inmates and staff, out of our jail, to do a better job of keeping it out of jail, and to cut down on the time it takes to process all of that mail.”
In the litigation, it claimed that the sheriff was discriminating against the inmate’s First Amendment rights of free speech by not allowing Prison Legal News to be sent to inmates. Usually when it is perceived that a party may be acting unlawful – in this case the jail not allowing inmates to receive this free magazine – lawyers will send a letter of intent to file a lawsuit, if change isn’t made. “They baited us for a year!” Sheriff Dickerson adds. It is usually the case that most lawyers acting in good faith are trying to obtain the goal of getting the other party to stop doing whatever it is they are doing, but in this case no letter was ever sent, until the sheriff was told of an impending lawsuit. Was it really the goal to stop Sheriff Dickerson in the first place? The Seattle law firm of MacDonald, Hoague and Bayless racked up impressive attorney fees of $763,803.45, while the plaintiff received $15,000,
Perhaps the silver lining to this story is that Columbia County has insurance for this type of lawsuit through their carrier CIS and that taxpayers of Columbia County will not suffer damages for this. An appeal is pending.
Randy Sanders is the Public Information Officer/Communications Director for Columbia County. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.