Prison Law Blog

Sara Mayeux

Posts Tagged ‘restrictions on prison reading material

Alabama Inmate Sues Over Banned Book – Douglas Blackmon’s Slavery by Another Name

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Previously I noted Wall Street Journal reporter Douglas Blackmon’s book Slavery by Another Name, a history of the convict-lease system in Alabama. When an Alabama inmate, Mark Melvin, tried to read the book recently, officials at the Kilby state prison seized it, calling the book “incendiary.” Melvin is now suing in federal court with the help of the Equal Justice InitiativeFrom the New York Times:

Mr. Melvin never received the book. According to his lawsuit, he was told by an official at Kilby that the book was “too incendiary” and “too provocative,” and was ordered to have it sent back at his own expense.

He appealed, but in his lawsuit he says that prison officials upheld the decision, citing a regulation banning any mail that incites “violence based on race, religion, sex, creed, or nationality, or disobedience toward law enforcement officials or correctional staff.” (Mr. Melvin is white.)

So he sued.

A spokesman for the Alabama Department of Corrections said officials had not seen the suit on Monday and could not comment.

Mr. Stevenson, who is also the director of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, said he considered the lawsuit to be less about the rights of people in prison but primarily about the country’s refusal to own up to its racial history.

Ohio Death Row Inmates Win Concessions, End Hunger Strike

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From the Columbus Dispatch:

A memo dated Friday from Warden David Bobby of the Ohio State Penitentiary at Youngstown outlined six policy changes being made for inmates under the prison’s “administrative maximum security” designation, the most restricted section of Death Row, which houses about 120 prisoners.

Inmates will be allowed “semi-contact” visits with family members, additional recreation time, access to computer-based legal research, phone privileges up to one hour per day and the opportunity to purchase more items from the commissary, including food and clothing. …

Attorneys Staughton and Alice Lynd, who have advocated for the Lucasville inmates, obtained a copy of the memo. They said the state’s capitulation was a surprise.

(h/t: The Crime Report)

Connecticut Lawmaker Calls for Ban on Violent Books in Prison Libraries

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American Libraries reports:

“It is important that we do our homework and establish a policy that not only keeps books like In Cold Blood out of the hands of violent criminals like Steven Hayes, but also a policy that will stand up to any legal challenges that are thrown its way,” Sen. [John] Kissel stated October 6. “Common sense is on our side and I believe we will be able to establish an effective policy without having to pass new legislation.”

Kissel and [Department of Corrections Commissioner Leo] Arnone confirmed that the corrections department would revise prison-library policy in about a month after examining how collection development is codified for federal prison libraries, and how those policies balance prison security against the threat of First Amendment lawsuits. …

“Somebody that is moved to commit a crime has much more going on in their lives than simply having read a few comic books or a novel or In Cold Blood,” Deborah Caldwell-Stone, deputy executive director of the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, told the AP October 3. The Prisoners’ Right to Read interpretation of ALA’s Library Bill of Rights acknowledges that prison librarians may be required by law “to prohibit material that instructs, incites, or advocates criminal action or bodily harm” but goes on to caution that “only those items that present an actual compelling and imminent risk to safety and security should be restricted.”

This call comes, of course, in the wake of the murders in Cheshire, Conn., for which Steven Hayes was recently convicted and sentenced to death. Jonathan Simon has some thoughts on why Hayes’s particularly horrifying series of crimes is likely to shape policy for years to come; Jill Lepore wrote about the case last year.

Help End Prison Rape, Preserve Due Process: Two Opportunities for Public Comment on Federal Prison Regulations

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If you have an extra five minutes today, here are two easy ways for you to share your opinion with the federal government and make your thoughts part of the public record. You can be sure that corrections officials and lobby groups will be seeking to influence the government on both these issues, so it’s important that ordinary citizens make their voices heard as well.

(1) Write to the DOJ urging adoption of the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission Standards

As I’ve noted before, the Department of Justice is currently accepting public comments on whether it should adopt the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission standards. The public comment period ends soon (May 10), so take a few minutes today to submit your comment, if you haven’t already. The proposed standards are based on best practices from prison systems that have made concrete progress in reducing sexual abuse behind bars — so their adoption nationwide could make a real difference in combating what’s become a true human rights crisis in this country. If you feel that you need more information about the scope of the problem, check out the details and links at the Just Detention International website. Then, there are a number of easy ways to submit your comment into the public record:

  • Visit www.regulations.gov, search for “Docket No. OAG-131″ as your keyword, then click “Submit a Comment.” You’ll be taken to a form where you can enter your comment as text or upload an attachment.
  • Sign this petition at Change.org, which will submit a form letter to Eric Holder on your behalf.
  • If you prefer snail mail, sample letters and addresses are available from Prison Fellowship.

(2) Write to the Bureau of Prisons about its so-called “Communications Management Units

As reported here by Politico, the Obama Administration is reviving a set of rules first proposed but later abandoned by the Bush Administration to keep terrorism-related federal prisoners in special, isolated facilities, with very extreme restrictions on their outside communications. These so-called “Communications Management Units” are actually already in use, and in a recently filed lawsuit, prisoners allege they’ve been transferred there with no notice or due process, and without any clear standards as to who qualifies for this treatment. By belatedly publishing a set of rules for the CMUs, the administration may be hoping to forestall that lawsuit’s claim that the use of CMUs was never subject to public notice and comment, as is generally required of new federal regulations. (I blogged about the lawsuit here).

Note that by definition these rules would affect not the so-called “worst of the worst” terrorism-related prisoners (who would likely be sent to the federal supermax in Colorado, if not whatever substitute for Guantanamo the administration comes up with) but rather, as Politico puts it, “prisoners who are perceived by the government or as a result of their crimes to be more likely to try to associate with terrorist networks” (my emphasis: note all the implicit “ifs”). Prisoners currently in the CMUs claim they’ve been singled out for their religious or political beliefs, or in retaliation for filing grievances against the prison system — not for legitimate safety reasons — and that they weren’t given any opportunity to view or challenge the evidence allegedly supporting their isolation.

  • If you choose to write to Eric Holder about this general issue, the Center for Constitutional Rights has some suggested language. You can also send a form letter through their website by clicking here.
  • If you want to comment specifically on the new federal regulations, you have until June 7. To submit your comment, go to www.regulations.gov and search for “BOP Docket No. 1148-P” as your keyword, then click “Submit a Comment.” Then upload your comment as text or an attachment. The Brennan Center for Justice makes some points about the proposed regs that you may want to incorporate into your comment.

A Day in the Life of a Prison Librarian

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Thanks to the San Jose State University masters program in library and information science, here’s a video webcast with Patrick Moloney, Senior Librarian for the California Men’s Colony in San Luis Obispo, on the typical work day, rewards of the job, hiring process, pay and benefits for California’s prison librarians. San Jose State has the nation’s largest library science program, and has partnered with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to help with recruiting correctional librarians. Moloney notes that although prison libraries’ primary mandate is to provide legal resources, they also provide help with literacy, reentry resources, and general reading material. Although Moloney’s talk is aimed at library science students assessing their career options, it provides glimpses into prison life that may be of interest to readers of this blog.

New Book: Reading Is My Window

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Readers may be interested in Reading Is My Window: Books and the Art of Reading in Women’s Prisons, new this month from UNC Press, by Megan Sweeney, an English professor at the University of Michigan. The bulk of the book is based on Sweeney’s interviews with 94 women prisoners, and examines how these women read urban crime fiction, victimization narratives, and self-help books, to show “how some women prisoners use the limited reading materials available to them in important ways: to come to terms with their pasts, to negotiate their present experiences, and to reach toward different futures” (pp. 1-2).

Sweeney situates her present-day findings within the history of reading in American prisons from the 18th century through the present. Although reading was central to the rehabilitative ideal of the earliest penitentiaries, Sweeney argues that over time, “penal authorities often abandoned their emphases on reading and education when nonwhite and female prisoners were involved” (p. 22). More recently, as prisoners have been increasingly dehumanized and prison policy has increasingly emphasized retribution over rehabilitation, prison libraries have been gutted and prisoners’ access to reading materials curtailed.

Despite the dearth of resources available to them (and here I’m quoting from the UNC Press description linked above),

Sweeney illuminates the resourceful ways in which prisoners educate and empower themselves through reading. Given the scarcity of counseling and education in prisons, women use books to make meaning from their experiences, to gain guidance and support, to experiment with new ways of being, and to maintain connections with the world.

FYI: Don’t Send Jenna Bush’s Book to Any Friends You May Have in a Texas Prison

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A criminal justice policy analyst with the Texas Public Policy Foundation says that poor literacy is one of the most common obstacles that Texas inmates face in trying to reintegrate into society upon their release. Yet, it can be hard for inmates who want to practice their literacy skills to get their hands on their choice of reading material. According to an Austin American-Statesman investigation, here are just a few of the books that have been banned from Texas prisons in recent years:

  • Anna’s Story: A Journey of Hope by Jenna Bush (daughter of George W.)
  • The Narrative of Sojourner Truth
  • Krik, Krak by Edwidge Danticat
  • Freakonomics by Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt
  • Brokeback Mountain by Annie Proulx
  • Let Us Now Praise Famous Men by James Agee
  • Friday Night Lights by H.G. Bissinger

In case you were wondering, here’s the deliberative procedure by which the list of banned books is decided:

When a book arrives at a Texas prison mailroom, an employee first checks the database to see if the book is already prohibited. If not, said [Texas prison system mail specialist Terry] Shelby, “he’ll flip it over and read the back.” If that provides insufficient information to make a decision, “they scan through it looking for key words” or pictures that would disqualify the publication.

“You can pretty much tell by reading the first few pages,” she said. “We rely on them to use their judgment.”

Written by sara

February 1, 2010 at 6:40 am

No Dungeons & Dragons in the Dungeon

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One of many D & D monsters, the "Bonecrusher Skeleton." © 2009 Wizards. All Rights Reserved

There’s been some talk in the blogosphere of the Seventh Circuit’s recent ruling upholding a Wisconsin prison’s ban on the role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons, against a prisoner’s First Amendment challenge. (Note that the ban covers not only the game itself, but also any D & D related publications: novellas, strategy guides, etc.) Here’s one take over at the Volokh Conspiracy, which spurred a series of comments that for some reason merited coverage in the New York Times; Above the Law skewers the Seventh Circuit’s reasoning here. Why the ban? According to the prison warden (as quoted in the opinion), D & D can lead to “fantasy role playing, competitive hostility, violence, addictive escape behaviors, and possible gambling” (p. 4).

From a technical legal standpoint, the Seventh Circuit may have been right to uphold the ban, since the standard for judicial review of prison policies is akin to “rational basis review” — basically, as long as the government can come up with a remotely plausible explanation for a regulation, the court oughtn’t interfere. (Though I’d invite readers to read the opinion and the commentaries linked above, and then see how plausible you actually find the state’s justifications.) And sure, it’s easy enough to joke about a role-playing game that revolves around a weird hybrid of medieval fantasy and Tolkien. (To make this a case, in the words of the New York Times, that’s just about “the rights of inmates to nerd out.”) As a policy matter, though, a ban of this type raises questions that go straight to the heart of the entire prison project: Read the rest of this entry »

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