Federal court OKs confiscation of Pa. inmate’s writings

Friday, December 19, 2008

Prison officials in Huntingdon, Pa., did not violate the First Amendment rights of an inmate when they confiscated his writings criticizing prison workers, a federal judge has ruled. The judge reasoned that such materials — if left unpunished — could lead to a breakdown in order in the prison.

Inmate Wesley Harper wrote a manuscript titled “The Nominees” and two certificates, both titled “Certificate of Upgrade to Complete Asshole.” Harper awarded the dubious distinctions of “certificate upgrades” to two officers. He freely distributed his written work to fellow inmates and prison staff.

Prison officials confiscated the materials and charged Harper with violating a rule prohibiting “abusive, obscene or inappropriate language” directed at prison employees. After a hearing, Harper was found guilty and sentenced to 30 days in a restricted cell.

Harper sued in federal court, contending that the confiscation of his written materials violated his First Amendment rights. U.S. District Judge Sylvia H. Rambo for the Middle District of Pennsylvania rejected Harper’s claims in Harper v. Hannah. She applied the standard articulated by the U.S. Supreme Court in Turner v. Safley (1987) to determine whether the officials’ actions in punishing Harper were reasonably related to a legitimate penological concern, such as prison safety or rehabilitation.

The Safley standard first asks whether a valid, rational connection exists between the prison policy and the government interest in maintaining order. Rambo found that the confiscation of the materials “served the function of maintaining order in the institution” because not punishing Harper might lead to other inmates’ using similar language, which could lead to a disruption.

The second Safley factor asks whether the inmate has alternative means of exercising his rights to free expression. Rambo reasoned that Harper could have written his manuscripts without abusive language and he could have written them but not distributed them throughout the prison.

The third Safley factor requires courts to evaluate what impact accommodating an inmate’s free-speech rights will have on other inmates and prison personnel. Rambo determined that “the resulting impact on guards and other inmates would be negative” and not censoring the materials could cause “some inmates to assume a more aggressive stance toward the guards based on the content of the writings.”

The final Safley factor asks whether there were “ready alternatives” for furthering prison officials’ interests in maintaining order. Rambo found no such alternatives, as “confiscation was necessary in order to maintain a sense of order and discipline in the prison.”

Rambo concluded: “A legitimate penological interest exists in preventing material containing abusive, obscene, or inappropriate language to staff from circulating in a prison in order to maintain discipline and to prevent conflict between inmates and prison personnel.”

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