Ex-inmate’s claim can proceed against prison book ban
A recent decision by a federal judge in Indiana shows that prison officials must provide at least some justification for broad-based bans on reading material.
Michael N. Newsom, a former inmate at Plainfield Correctional Facility, contended that prison officials including Superintendent Wendy Knight violated his First Amendment rights by withholding and then destroying a hardcover copy of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows that had been mailed to him.
Plainfield has a policy of banning all hardcover books as inmate personal property, claiming that they present security risks and could be used to smuggle contraband. However, inmates can check hardcover books out of the prison library and can possess softcover books.
U.S. District Judge Jane Magnus-Stinson refused to grant Knight and the other defendants their request for summary judgment — to have Newsom's case thrown out. She wrote in her Dec. 21 opinion in Newsom v. Knight that “defendants have not shown that a wholesale prohibition on the receipt or possession of hardcover books, even those sent directly from the publisher, is a reasonable response to these security concerns.”
Prisoners' First Amendment claims are evaluated through a legal standard that is quite deferential to prison officials. Under the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1987 decision Turner v. Safley, prison officials must show only that their policy is reasonably related to legitimate prison concerns, such as safety or rehabilitation. But the Court also said in Turner v. Safley that “prison walls do not form a barrier separating inmates from the protections of the Constitution.”
Prison officials at Plainfield did not establish that the Harry Potter book was available in the library or that it was available in softcover at the time, Magnus-Stinson wrote in refusing to reject Newsom’s First Amendment claim.
She did reject another part of Newsom’s lawsuit, involving the confiscation of his Slingshot newspaper. The judge accepted the prison officials’ testimony that the radical newspaper published anarchic symbols and presented a security threat. Unlike the wholesale ban on hardcover books, Magnus-Stinson said, the confiscation of the newspaper was reasonably related to security concerns.