Publishers, inmates claim Colorado prisons engage in censorship

Friday, March 24, 2000

A group of eight publishers and seven inmates sued the Colorado Department of Corrections yesterday, alleging the department engages in “a system-wide pattern and policy of inconsistent and arbitrary censorship.”

The complaint in New Times, Inc. v. Suthers says that the pattern of censorship has been extended to “innocuous” music and entertainment news magazines, including Rolling Stone, Vibe, The Source, Blaze and Yo.

A Department of Corrections regulation provides that inmate reading material “shall be permitted unless such material poses a threat to the security or good order of the facility or office, or is determined to be contrary to public safety and rehabilitative goals set for the offender by the DOC.”

The regulation provides that an “Offender Reading Material Committee” will review incoming publications that the mail staff thinks should be banned. The regulation provides that inmates receive written notice that their publications have been censored. However, according to the lawsuit, the mailroom staff “routinely fails” to follow this procedure.

The plaintiffs charge the regulation is also flawed because it does not “provide any notice to publishers that their publication is subject to censorship.”

“Entire issues of these music magazines such as Vibe have been censored as ‘gang-related’ because they contain articles or advertisements with photographs of rap performers,” Mark Silverstein, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado, said in a news release.

Hugh Gottschalk, a Denver attorney representing the plaintiffs in cooperation with the ACLU, said in a news release that “the First Amendment protects the rights of prisoners to read information and opinion from a wide variety of sources. Similarly, publishers have a First Amendment right to reach their readers, including prisoners.”

The complaint lists numerous examples of censorship, including the banning of the books Like Water for Chocolate, Criminal Injustice: Confronting the Prison Crisis and A Nahuati-English Dictionary and Concordance to the Cantares Mexicanos.

Calls placed to the Colorado Department of Corrections were not returned.