1st Circuit upholds Mass. prison rules on publications

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Massachusetts prison regulations banning inmates from receiving publications featuring sexually explicit material and nudity and from pinning up semi-nude pictures in their cells do not violate the First Amendment, a federal appeals court panel has ruled.

Eleven inmates sued in federal court, contending that the inmate-mail and cell-decoration regulations violated the First Amendment on their face and as applied. Prison officials contended that the restrictions were a rational way of ensuring security and safety in the prison.

In 2007, a federal district court rejected the inmates’ facial and as-applied challenges to the mail regulations, but did not specifically address the cell-decoration rule. The district court applied the standard for evaluating restrictions on inmate expression articulated by the U.S. Supreme Court in Turner v. Safley. This standard asks whether the prison regulation is reasonably related to a legitimate penological concern.

On appeal, a three-judge panel of the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously affirmed in Josselyn v. Dennehy. The appeals court panel said the lower court was correct in relying on the professional judgment of prison officials, writing: “deference to the Commissioner's views was particularly appropriate because those views were based on his long and varied experience as a corrections official and buttressed by concrete examples of how restricting prisoners' receipt of sexually explicit materials is related to prison safety and security.”

The appeals court also noted that under Turner v. Safley, the burden is not on prison officials to prove the validity of a government regulation, but on the prisoner to disprove the rationality of the regulation.

The inmates also challenged how the regulations were applied, pointing out that prison officials even censored parts of National Geographic. However, the appeals court noted that the district court was not given a copy of the magazine material in question or “even specific descriptions of it.”

In another argument, the inmate-plaintiffs — most of whom were housed at Cedar Junction — contended that the regulation was applied more leniently at another institution. The 1st Circuit panel rejected that argument as well, writing: “The short answer to that argument is that the two institutions may not be similarly situated. There is therefore nothing arbitrary or capricious about applying the regulation more strictly at Cedar Junction than at the other institution.”

The inmates, who represented themselves, also pointed out that the district court did not specifically address the constitutionality of the cell-decoration rule. However, the appeals court panel wrote that “the absence of a separate ruling on the constitutionality of the cell-decoration policy is not fatal, since much of the district court's analysis of the Turner factors is equally applicable to the cell-decoration policy.”

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