DO PRISON INMATES in Washington State have a right to know about racist guards? That question will be decided in a Spokane courtroom next Monday when a lawsuit involving a Seattle Weekly cover story gets heard by a federal judge.
The March 11 cover story, by writer Jennifer Vogel, described white supremacist activity among prison guards in several Washington big houses. It was based in part on an investigative report compiled last year by the State Patrol. The story was later reprinted in the May edition of Prison Legal News (or PLN), a national newsletter run by a pair of local inmates. However, that May issue never made it to Washington prisoners' mailboxes: It was censored statewide by Department of Corrections officials.
Prison officials have a right—well-established in law—to suppress incoming prisoner mail that they think could spark violence. But PLN's attorney, Frank Cuthbertson, believes there was no convincing evidence to suggest that the May article would cause unrest in the prisons. PLN filed suit against the Department of Corrections (DOC) in August, claiming that the ban on Vogel's story "violates the First Amendment rights of publishers and prisoners alike." Seattle Weekly also joined the suit as a plaintiff.
Cuthbertson contends that the state's action in this case was "a thoughtless use of censorship power at best and a blatant cover-up at worst. The law is clear that prison officials may not prohibit information from entering the prison system merely because it is critical of police or corrections officials."
But state officials, in their response to the suit, deny that suppression of Vogel's article was "aimed at restricting unflattering information about the DOC." Rather, they say, it was intended to protect the individual guards who are named in the story and who, in some cases, still work inside the prisons.
Circulation of the article "could result in retaliatory acts by inmates against the officers," DOC maintains, "or at the very least cause inmates to question the officers' authority." The DOC contends that some of the individuals mentioned in Vogel's story were ultimately "cleared of any wrongdoing" by the State Patrol investigation and that her article did not make this clear.
But Cuthbertson denies this. "The State Patrol report said two or three individuals wouldn't admit to being members of the White Aryan Resistance. But it's not accurate to say they were exonerated." Cuthbertson argues that, in any case, prisoners don't need Vogel's article to tell them who the Nazi sympathizers are. "According to the State Patrol report, these people were being fairly overt about their Aryan leanings. There was white supremacist literature in the prison, Nazi salutes. These people made themselves known."
That's not how the guards see it. Five of the individuals identified in the State Patrol report have filed a grievance with DOC, alleging that the release of the report to a prison activist (who supplied it to Vogel) resulted in "an invasion of privacy and risk of physical harm." Some of the guards have also filed suit.
Meanwhile, a discrimination claim filed by black guards last year is also crawling ahead, though barely. An attorney for the guards recently applied for sanctions against the DOC, claiming that the state is dragging its feet in providing personnel records and other documents necessary for the suit. "If we get this on the trial calendar in 2000 I'd be surprised," says the DOC's attorney in the case.
Inmates may be able to read about it sooner, though. At a hearing in US District Court next Monday, a judge will decide whether PLN should be allowed to immediately distribute Vogel's story or if the state's position will stand.