Prisoner can be denied access to drug-reference books

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

A federal appeals court has ruled that Illinois prison officials did not violate the First Amendment when they denied an inmate two medical books about drugs. The decision shows the broad range of deference given to prison officials in making these types of reading-material decisions.

James Munson, who is serving a life sentence at the Menard Correctional Facility for murder, ordered six books from a prison-approved bookstore. Prison officials approved several of them, including Carpe Diem: Put a Little Latin in Your Life. But they denied Munson the Physicians’ Desk Reference and the Complete Guide to Prescription & Nonprescription Drugs 2009.

A prison screening official checked boxes on a form that said the books appearerd on a disapproved publication list and could be detrimental to prison security. The official wrote “DRUGS” on a line for other reasons for denial.

Munson sued in federal court, contending that the denial of the books violated his First Amendment rights. He alleged in his complaint that he suffered from a chronic medical condition and other ailments requiring him to take several prescription drugs. He also said he once became ill when prison officials gave him another inmate’s medication by mistake. Munson said he wanted to educate himself about his medications.

U.S. District Judge G. Patrick Murphy dismissed Munson’s complaint in February 2011. Murphy wrote in his opinion: “The Court can imagine many illicit uses to which books like the PDR and the Complete Guide could be put if IDOC prisoners were allowed unfettered access to such materials, including, inter alia, drug trafficking, drug abuse, and plotting suicide attempts, all of which are, of course, activities highly detrimental to prison security and discipline.

Munson then appealed to the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. On March 9, a three-judge panel affirmed the denial of his suit in Munson v. Gaetz.

Writing for the panel, Judge John Daniel Tinder said that “a prison’s refusal to allow an inmate access to a book presents a substantial First Amendment issue.” He also said prison officials must explain their justifications for denying certain books.

However, Tinder said that marking “DRUGS” was sufficient for prison officials, who need only show that their restriction is reasonably related to legitimate penological concerns. “The books contain drug-related content and the prison restricted Munson’s access to the books because of their drug-related content,” Tinder wrote.

Although Munson claimed that other inmates had similar books, he provided no examples. He also claimed that the ban was illegitimate because the prison library contained the rejected books. But Tinder reasoned that prison officials could still wish to limit access to a book yet keep it in the library: “Allowing reduced access does not mean that barring unfettered access is illegitimate, even if restricted access creates an appearance of inconsistency.”

Chicago-based attorney Matthew R. Carter, who represented Munson on appeal before the 7th Circuit, told the First Amendment Center that no decision had been made on whether to appeal.

“I have a difficult time seeing how the PDR could be a ‘security’ risk in Mr. Munson’s case,” Carter said.  “Prison officials are given a great deal of discretion, however, and ‘security’ was not the only rationale cited by the prison publication review officer in support of her decision to deny Mr. Munson his books,” Carter said.

“Additionally, the court found that the review officer supported her decision by indicating that it was based upon the books’ drug-related content. The court seemed to place great weight on this final factor and found that there is an unquestionably legitimate and neutral government objective of restricting prisoner access to drug-related information.

“We are disappointed at the outcome of the appeal and continue to strongly believe that First Amendment rights must be jealously protected,” he said.

A message left with the Illinois attorney general’s press office has not yet been returned.

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