Courts - Virginia State settles lawsuit by Muslim prisoner

By Dena Potter

Associated Press

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) -- Virginia has settled a lawsuit filed by a Muslim inmate who claimed the prison system violated his rights by refusing him an Islamic newspaper and religious programs.

Red Onion State Prison inmate Kelvin Brown, 37, sued the warden and other prison officials after numerous issues of the weekly Islamic newspaper The Final Call were banned beginning in 2009.

The Department of Corrections bans material it says promotes violence or is detrimental to safety. Brown, who is serving a life sentence for robbery and other charges, was not told why the issues were banned.

In the settlement, the state agreed to allow inmates to receive the previously banned issues and to offer an explanation if other issues are banned in the future. It also agreed to allow Islamic television programming and written materials to be distributed.

It's the third time since September the state has settled a lawsuit or been told by a judge to revise its literature policies.

In September, the state settled a case involving a ban on issues of Prison Legal News, a magazine that reports on prisoner rights and criminal justice issues. That same month, a federal judge declared a policy unconstitutional that denied inmates access to classic literature with sexually explicit passages but allows them to receive Playboy magazine.

"The Virginia Department of Corrections has been out of control when it comes to censoring literature coming into the prisons," said Jeff Fogel, the attorney in both The Final Call and Prison Legal News lawsuits.

Fogel said despite the recent success in challenging the policy, the problem persists.

"This problem will not be solved until the Department of Corrections fully realizes that it has no right to impose political or religious orthodoxy," he said.

Department of Corrections spokesman Larry Traylor said the agency does not comment on litigation.

According to the lawsuit, Brown had been a member of the Nation of Islam since 1993 and had subscribed to the newspaper since then as he served time at various state prisons.

At Red Onion, inmates are held in their cells 23 hours a day with limited contact to other prisoners. There are no religious services or programs devoted to the Muslim faith.

Between January and May 2009, 22 issues of The Final Call were banned, and virtually every issue since then has been prohibited.

Brown argued that because he was never told why the issues were banned, he could not appeal the decision of the Publication Review Committee.

According to the settlement, the department must remove all previously banned issues from the list of disapproved materials, must give those issues -- 10 at a time -- to Brown and must post bulletins letting all other prisoners know they are available.

If supplied with DVDs or videos about the Nation of Islam, the department must allow those to be shown on closed circuit television at Red Onion on a schedule comparable to Christian broadcasting. It also must allow distribution of books, pamphlets and other written religious material from the Nation of Islam.

A message left with Chicago-based The Final Call was not immediately returned.

Published: Mon, Nov 29, 2010


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