High court refuses to consider inmate’s appeal of jail ban of nude pictures

Monday, March 20, 2000

WASHINGTON — Turning away the appeal of an inmate who wanted to have Playboy magazines delivered to his cell, the Supreme Court today refused to consider an Arizona county’s ban on all depictions of frontal nudity from its jails.

The justices, without comment, turned away arguments that said the ban is so sweeping it violates free-speech rights.

Since 1993, the Maricopa County Sheriff’s office has prohibited jail inmates from possessing “sexually explicit material,” which it defines as anything that shows male or female frontal nudity.

The county runs one of the nation’s largest jail systems, housing up to 6,500 inmates at facilities in the Phoenix area.

Jonathan Mauro challenged the ban in 1995 after officials denied his request that his subscription to Playboy be directed to the cell where he was being held while awaiting trial.

Mauro later was convicted of fraud and now is an inmate at the Arizona State Prison in Florence. But his case against Maricopa County and Sheriff Joseph Arpaio remains alive because he is seeking monetary damages.

The ban covers publications and inmates’ own artwork, and the jail officials say it is aimed at preventing inmate fights and harassment of female jail employees.

A federal trial judge upheld the ban in Mauro v. Arpaio but a three-judge federal appeals court panel struck it down. The three-judge panel said the prohibition was too sweeping and would include “such magazines as ‘National Geographic,’ medical journals, artistic works and countless other materials.”

An 11-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last August reversed the three-judge panel’s ruling by a 7-4 vote. The majority of that court concluded that the county’s policy fell within the guidelines provided by the 1987 Supreme Court decision in Turner v. Safley on jailhouse censorship because the ban is “reasonably related to legitimate penological interests.”

One of the dissenters said, “No other court has upheld such a broad intrusion into an inmate’s First Amendment rights.”

In the appeal acted on today, Mauro’s lawyers noted that a Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue and “Victoria’s Secret” catalog are not banned but Michelangelo’s “David” or concentration camp photographs are.

The county’s lawyers urged the justices to reject the appeal because it “fails to offer any evidence that other inmates have been denied artistic or scientific publications under the policy.”