Aerial of White County Sheriff's Office and Jail

File photo

An aerial view of the White County Sheriff’s Office and Jail complex.

MONTICELLO — The ACLU of Indiana has reached a potential settlement with the White County Sheriff’s Office over a lawsuit alleging violations of inmates’ First Amendment rights under the US Constitution.

The suit, filed in June 2020, challenged the policies that were in effect at the White County Jail — one prohibiting inmates from receiving newspapers and another prohibiting those incarcerated from receiving books through the mail directly from publishers.

The White County Sheriff’s Office has not responded to the Herald Journal’s request for comment, but according to court documents, “the sheriff (Bill Brooks) has generally denied the allegations.”

In their answer to the original complaint, attorneys for the sheriff’s office stated the policies prohibiting inmates from receiving “any items from outside the jail” was in response to the COVID-19 health emergency — which is still ongoing — “and would be re-evaluated at a later date.”

Under the proposed agreement, filed Nov. 12, 201, with the US District Court for the Northern District of Indiana-Lafayette Division, the jail will discontinue its policy of prohibiting inmates from having newspaper subscriptions sent to the jail. Instead, each inmate will be permitted to subscribe to and receive one newspaper of his or her choice at the inmate’s expense.

If an inmate wishes to subscribe, at his or her expense, to a second newspaper, the inmate must submit a written request to the jail commander.

The agreement also calls for the jail to discontinue its prohibition on inmates from receiving books through the mail that are sent directly from publishers, such as Amazon or Barnes & Noble.

However, jail staff may still inspect the contents of books received through the mail to ensure it doesn’t present a threat to other inmates or jail staff. If delivery of a book is withheld, the inmate must be notified in writing of the book’s confiscation and may challenge that confiscation through existing grievance processes at the jail.

There is nothing in the agreement that prevents the sheriff or his staff from continues enforcement of its policy prohibiting inmates from books through the mail when those books are sent from people or entities other than publishers, book clubs, and store or mail order business/distributors.

Each inmate will be allowed up to three books at any one time; religious texts will not count toward that limit.

The case originally started as a filing by Justin A. Hines, who was an inmate at the time. In February 2021, it evolved into a separate class-action lawsuit by the ACLU of Indiana to include “all persons currently confined, or who will in the future be confined in the White County Jail.”

According to Gavin Rose, senior staff attorney for ACLU of Indiana, the group did not raise monetary claims for damages in the class-action lawsuit, but Hines did raise claims for monetary damages. White County will pay ACLU of Indiana $20,000 in attorneys’ fees and costs for both cases, in addition to an undisclosed settlement amount for Hines.

All told, the county allegedly has spent around $45,000 in plaintiff’s attorneys’ fees and damages. The total does not include the jail’s own attorneys’ fees and costs.

The US District Court for the Northern District of Indiana-Lafayette Division has yet to rule on the agreement. If it does give its OK, it will be deemed a private settlement agreement under the Prison Reform Litigation Act.

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