Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Unreasonable if not Irrational Restrictions on Speech during Incarceration

 Pentonville Prison, London (1965)
“Some of the greatest works of literature and social commentary—everything from Don Quixote, to O. Henry’s stories, to Martin Luther King Jr’s, Letter from a Birmingham Jail—were written in whole or in part while their authors were incarcerated. In many prisons and jails today, however, speech is burdened by regulations that make little sense. Examples include the following:

  • A federal prison employee prevented a prisoner in Colorado from receiving books by President Obama, citing national security concerns.
  • A Wisconsin prison banned all materials related to the fantasy role play game Dungeons & Dragons, concerned that the game would promote gang activity.
  • A jail in South Carolina prohibited all publications with staples on the ground that staples could be used in makeshift tattoo guns. At the same time, the jail allowed prisoners to purchase legal pads that contained staples from the jail’s commissary.
  • Jail employees in Virginia used scissors or a hobby knife to cut out biblical passages from letters a mother wrote to her incarcerated son. The letters given to the son had holes where the biblical passages had been.
  • In Wisconsin, a prison forbade a prisoner from ordering the Physician’s Desk Reference.
  • Some jails ban all newspaper and magazines. Others prohibit letters sent to prisoners, and allow only postcards.
  • A purge of books in religious libraries maintained by federal prisons resulted in works by Maimonides, the medieval Jewish philosopher, being pulled from the shelves.
  • A prison allowed magazines such as Playboy and Maxim, but prohibited works by John Updike as salacious.”

I can’t speak with authority to the proposed solutions, but for the rest of this important article, please see David M. Shapiro, “Lenient in Theory, Dumb in Fact: Prison, Speech, and Scrutiny” (February 20, 2015). Northwestern Public Law Research Paper No. 15-08.

See too: (1) In a different vein, see this guest post from several years ago at The Faculty Lounge: “The Bard of Avon in Prison.” (2) The Atlantic: “Why Shakespeare Belongs In Prison. (3) From Louisville, Kentucky, “Shakespeare Behind Bars.” (4) My bibliography on “punishment and prison.” 


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