Sheriff’s book shipping policy for inmates is a violation of the First Amendment, lawsuit says


Background: Gwinnett County Jail YouTube screengrab CBS affiliate WANF./Inset: Louis Correa, owner of Avid Bookshop LLC in Athens, Georgia. YouTube screengrab CBS affiliate WANF.

Background: Gwinnett County Jail YouTube screengrab CBS affiliate WANF./Inset: Louis Correa, owner of Avid Bookshop LLC in Athens, Georgia. YouTube screengrab CBS affiliate WANF.

When two customers came to Avid Bookshop in Georgia last year eager to purchase and then send a few books to an inmate at the Gwinnett County Jail, they thought that would be the end of it and they dropped their packages in the mail.

But, according to a federal lawsuit filed this week by the bookstore’s owner, Louis Correa, that was far from the end of things. Correa now alleges he has discovered a series of unconstitutional practices by jail officials that ultimately deprive both himself as a bookseller and inmates, already cut off from the outside world, of their right to read, educate and improve themselves.

The lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia alleges that Keybo Taylor, sheriff of the Gwinnett County Jail, and the jail’s commander, Benjamin Haynes, have violated Avid Book Shop’s First Amendment right to communicate with inmates in the jail by providing them with materials or other “expressive choices” their friends or family members have made when they purchase books from Avid to send.

It was last May when a customer, Tina Ridley, came to his storefront to purchase three books, one of which was a copy of Bryan Stevenson’s take on the flaws in the American justice system entitled “Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption.”

Correa alleges that when Ridley tried to personally send the books to inmate James Bryant III along with a postcard, they were promptly sent back and with scant explanation. A form returned with the books had simply checked off a section for “unauthorized retailer.”

Correa said he tried to help Ridley and packaged brand new copies of the books himself and sent them off, sans postcard, in July. Understanding the jail’s concerns over possible contraband coming into the facility with such shipments, Correa said he followed jail retailer policies strictly, labeled everything accordingly and included a list describing exactly what the package contained.

But once again, the books were returned to sender. This time only with a code and “no explanation of what the code meant,” Correa alleges.

Ridley wasn’t the only customer who experienced this; the same thing happened to customer Dan Matthews when he tried to send books to inmate Bryant, the lawsuit states.

Fed up, Correa said when he tried to speak to jail officials, he was told by a deputy that Avid was simply unable to become an authorized bookseller due to concerns that locals could readily add contraband to packages whereas the jail’s approved sellers, specifically, Amazon or Barnes & did not pose this threat.

But, the deputy told Correa, “Even Barnes&Nobles, we’ve been having problems with them,” the lawsuit states.

A supervisor also allegedly refused to talk to Correa and the only explanations Gwinnett County Jail purportedly offered about its “authorized retailer” policy was a vague one.

On its website, there was no mention of the policy and Correa said when he tried to file an open records request with the county about incidents related to contraband being found inside books mailed to the jail, the county was nonresponsive.

According to the lawsuit, the jail has not identified who designates authorized retailers, offers no criteria or standards for those they select and has not set forward any application process for booksellers to become accredited. Naturally, Correa wrote, there is no process for appealing one’s rejection as a retailer, either.

A letter sent last June by the bookseller to the general counsel for the sheriff’s office was met with a terse emailed response, the lawsuit shows:

Residents can receive books if they come from one of our approved suppliers. This is to ensure that associates of the residents cannot soak pages in drugs or otherwise create safety issues. We cannot approve bookstores, like Avid, that are open to the public.

Correa alleges jail officials told him by phone and email that exclusions for “brick and mortar” stores like Avid were part of the official policy.

Yet that policy was being applied inconsistently to Barnes & , Correa said, arguing the large retailer had less quality control than a small, single-store operation like Avid.

“This inconsistency raises First and Fourteenth Amendment concerns that authorized retailer status is not reasonably related to legitimate penological interests and is being determined on an ad hoc, subjective basis, according to the unbridled discretion of jail officials,” wrote attorneys Clare Norins and Zack Greenamyre.

Correa’s lawsuit seeks to stop enforcement of the jail’s policies which he says are an “exaggerated response to the jail’s security objectives.”

Correa’s attorney did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but in a statement announcing the lawsuit on March 18, Correa said the jail’s policies amounted to “unmitigated government censorship” that also harms small independent booksellers who are ” dedicated to bookselling as an expression of our values of progress and community.”

The Gwinnett County Sheriff’s Office did not immediately return Law&Crime’s request for comment. In a statement to the Athens Banner-Herald, the sheriff’s office said their “policy maintains the safety and security of our staff and inmates.”

“It does not limit the content or subject matter of the publication, but only the origin of the shipment. The Gwinnett County Sheriff’s Office will not comment further on pending litigation,” the statement said

Philomena Polefrone, the advocacy associate manager for the American Booksellers Association called the jail’s policy “unfair and baseless.”

“The decision to exclude independent bookstores from the right to send books to prison while permitting big box retailers and Amazon is unfair and baseless. Independent bookstores, at the very least, must be given a transparent set of policies and allowed due process to become authorized vendors,” Polefrone said.

A senior manager at PEN America, Moira Marquis, also weighed in on the lawsuit this week, saying lists of approved vendors are “unconstitutional restraints on freedom of speech.”

“Any publisher, bookstore or other book distributor should be allowed to send books to detained and incarcerated people in according with the ‘publisher only’ rule upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in Bell v. Wolfish, allowing some publishers and vendors to send books to incarcerated people while excluding others, violates publishers’ rights to free speech and equal protection as guaranteed by the First and Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution,” Marquis wrote.

Have a tip we should know? [email protected]


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *