The Human Rights Coalition (HRC), politicized prisoner Robert Saleem Holbrook, and College of Charleston Professor Kristi Brian brought a lawsuit on January 8, 2014 against several employees of the State Correctional Institution (SCI) at Coal Township and the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (PA DOC) for confiscation of mail sent to Holbrook, a co-founder of HRC, who was incarcerated at SCI Coal Township at the time. (Holbrook, released in 2018, became ALC’s Executive Director in 2020.) The plaintiffs were seeking monetary and injunctive relief.
The suit detailed a series of confiscations of Holbrook’s mail beginning in January 2012, that included academic correspondence with a college professor; essays written by Angela Y. Davis and James Baldwin; and issues of The Movement, a newsletter published by HRC which focuses on prison abuse, solitary confinement, and ways that the family members of incarcerated people can come together to challenge human rights abuses and injustice in the criminal legal system.
The content of the materials censored by SCI Coal Township and Central Office officials touched on the most vital issues of the operation of the prison system in Pennsylvania: juveniles sentenced to die in prison, deaths in solitary confinement, repression of human rights defenders inside prisons, advocacy efforts by families of incarcerated people, and the pervasive racism that defines the criminal legal system in Pennsylvania and the U.S. In this context, freedom of thought, speech, and association carry life or death consequences.
On May 15, 2014, the court denied the defense’s request to dismiss some of the censorship claims and all of the supervisory officials named as defendants, and allowed the suit to go forward. On June 13, 2014, the court granted the plaintiffs’ motion to amend and supplement the original complaint, adding new claims for relief and one new defendant: DOC Secretary John Wetzel.
The new complaint added due process challenges claiming that prison officials failed to provide non-prisoners with notice and an opportunity to challenge when prison staff censor their mail. Additional claims challenged the criteria used by the DOC to justify censorship as being impermissibly vague, permitting prison staff to impose arbitrary standards when making censorship decisions.
After the court found in favor of Plaintiffs on multiple claims at the summary judgment stage, the defendants settled the damages and injunctive claims. The lawsuit forced substantial changes to DOC censorship policies and practices and has facilitated HRC’s ability to communicate with its base behind the walls.