Quick look at Beard v. Banks

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Case name: Beard v. Banks

Background: Ronald Banks was an inmate in Pennsylvania's “long term segregation unit,” a restricted part of the prison reserved for the most difficult and incorrigible prisoners. They are allowed only one visitor a month and other restrictions are imposed, including the one challenged here: They have no access to newspapers and magazines, with the exception of
religious and legal publications. In 2001 Banks and other inmates sued Jeffrey Beard, the state corrections department secretary, to challenge the rule. A federal magistrate and district court judge rejected their lawsuit on summary judgment, but in 2005 the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals struck down the prison policy.

Ruling: A prison official's testimony in a deposition that the policy was intended to give inmates an incentive to improve their behavior is sufficient to uphold the policy. The Court cited two key precedents: Turner v. Safley, a 1987 decision that allows restrictions on constitutional rights in prison if they are “reasonably related” to legitimate penological interests, and Overton v. Bazzetta, a 2003 decision that gives deference to prison officials in devising restrictions on inmates.

Verbatim: From Justice Stephen Breyer's plurality opinion: “The Secretary in his motion set forth several justifications for the prison's policy, including the need to motivate better behavior on the part of particularly difficult prisoners, the need to minimize the amount of property they control in their cells, and the need to assure prison safety, by, for example, diminishing the amount of material a prisoner might use to start a cell fire. We need go no further than the first justification, that of providing increased incentives for better prison behavior.”

From Justice John Paul Stevens' dissent: “What is perhaps most troubling about the prison regulation at issue in this case is that the rule comes perilously close to a state-sponsored effort at mind control … . In this case, the complete prohibition on secular, nonlegal newspapers, newsletters, and magazines prevents prisoners from 'receiv[ing] suitable access to social, political, esthetic, moral, and other ideas,' which are central to the development and preservation of individual identity, and are clearly protected by the First Amendment … . They are essentially isolated from any meaningful contact with the outside world.”

Lineup: Justice Stephen Breyer was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. and Justices Anthony Kennedy and David Souter. Justices Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia agreed that the regulation should be upheld, but for different reasons. Justices John Paul Stevens and Ruth Bader Ginsburg dissented. Justice Samuel Alito Jr. did not participate; in his previous position as a judge on the 3rd Circuit, he ruled in the case, dissenting from the decision that struck down the prison policy.

First Amendment impact: The decision does not break new First Amendment ground. It relies heavily on Turner v. Safley, which has governed litigation over First Amendment rights of prison inmates for nearly 20 years. By its own terms, the ruling may also have only limited effect. Breyer was careful to say that on the basis of the record in this case, it was appropriate to dismiss Banks' suit on summary judgment. But he said it would still be possible to challenge a policy like Pennsylvania's in the future by marshaling enough evidence to persuade a judge that the issue should go to trial.