7th Circuit gives Wis. prisons victory on inmate mail

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Wisconsin prison officials can prohibit delivery of a newsletter and articles critical of the state prison system, a federal appeals court has ruled in two consolidated cases involving a publisher and an inmate.

Frank Van den Bosch, a community organizer and publisher, sued prison officials after he learned that prison officials would not deliver the March 2007 issue of his newsletter, The New Abolitionist, now called Wisconsin Prison Watch. His newsletter advocates for prison reform and often publishes commentary disparaging Wisconsin Department of Corrections policies.

Prisoner Dennis E. Jones-El filed a separate federal lawsuit after prison officials refused to deliver to him copies of an article he had written for the May 2006 edition of The New Abolitionist. A reader had mailed him the copies so he could see them in print. Jones-El also alleged that jailers refused to deliver several other pieces of mail sent to him.

In separate decisions, federal district courts ruled that prison officials could deny delivery of the materials in question because prison officials reasonably believed that they might pose a threat to the prison’s interests in security and rehabilitation.

Both Van den Bosch and Jones-El appealed to the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which combined the cases. In its Sept. 15 decision, a three-judge panel unanimously affirmed the lower courts and sided with prison officials.

The panel evaluated the claims under a legal standard from the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Turner v. Safley (1987), which asks whether prison officials’ censorship decisions were reasonably related to legitimate penological concerns such as safety and security.

Articles in Van den Bosch’s March 2007 newsletter criticized the prison-job system and the parole system, and urged prisoners to use the courts to seek social change. Jones-El’s March 2006 article contended that the Wisconsin prison system operated as a de facto death-penalty system with its torturous conditions.

“Prisons maintain broad discretion in prohibiting material in prison that potentially endangers institutional security,” the panel wrote.

The panel noted that several passages in Van den Bosch’s newsletter could cause prisoners to distrust prison staff and threaten prison security. The panel also determined that Jones-El’s article used hyperbole that “runs afoul of a prison’s practical need to discourage misinformation that may needlessly encourage unrest.”

The panel decision rejecting the two plaintiffs’ claims applied the Turner v. Safley standard quite broadly and showed a great degree of deference to prison officials. The decision may make it more difficult for other inmates to assert First Amendment-based claims based on failure to deliver prisoner mail.

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