Wisconsin appeals court says prison officials can limit inmates to four books

Wednesday, June 14, 2000

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A Wisconsin Department of Corrections policy limiting the number of books some inmates may possess does not violate the inmates’ free-speech or free-exercise-of-religion rights, a state appeals court has ruled.

The Department of Corrections instituted a policy of four books only in the adjustment center of Waupun Correctional Institution, a maximum-security prison. (The adjustment center is a section in which disruptive inmates are housed.)

The policy allows each prisoner in the unit to have three paperbacks from the adjustment center collection and one “Bible, Koran or equivalent religious book.”

Contending that the policy violated several of their First Amendment rights, including freedom of speech and freedom of religion, 11 inmates sued the prison system in state court.

A lower court judge agreed that the policy violated the inmates’ First Amendment rights and awarded each prisoner $250 in damages. The judge determined that the inmates should be able to possess three of their own books, rather than three state-issued paperbacks.

Prison officials had argued that the measure was necessary for security reasons, because some inmates smuggled in contraband through in their books.

On appeal, the Wisconsin Court of Appeals reversed in Kirsch v. Wisconsin Department of Corrections. The appeals court analyzed the inmates’ claims under the standard articulated by the U.S. Supreme Court in its 1987 decision Turner v. Safley.

In Turner, the high court held that a prison regulation that affects prisoners’ First Amendment rights is constitutional as long as it is reasonably related to a legitimate penological interest.

The U.S. Supreme Court instructed courts to examine four factors in determining whether a regulation meets the Turner standard:

  • Whether the governmental objective is legitimate and neutral, and whether the prison regulation is rationally related to that objective.
  • Whether alternate means of exercising the rights remain open to inmates.
  • The impact that accommodation of inmates’ rights would have on guards, other inmates and prison resources.
  • The availability of obvious, easy alternatives to the challenged prison regulation.

Applying these factors, the Wisconsin appeals court sided with the prison officials. The court deferred to the prison officials’ belief that “increasing the number of books from an inmate’s personal property from one to four increases the opportunity for the introduction of contraband.”

The appeals court determined there was a “valid and logical connection” between protecting against contraband and limiting the number of personally owned books that an inmate could take into the adjustment center.

The prisoners argued — and the lower court agreed — that the balance should swing in their favor because the book collection in the adjustment center was limited. The lower court judge said the paperback supply constituted “incredibly restricted access to the world of ideas.”

However, the appeals court wrote that the adjustment center paperback supply “does provide some access to some published materials.”

The prisoners argued that the book restrictions were unnecessary because prison officials already engaged in random searches of adjustment-center inmates. However, the appeals court wrote that “searches by the staff cannot entirely control the risk of contraband being introduced into the AC.”

The court recognized that the policy “is a significant restriction on the plaintiffs’ access to published material while in the AC, and we recognize that the trial court has attempted to alleviate the restriction while still taking into account the interests asserted by the State.”

“Considering all the Turner factors, we conclude the requirement that the three paperbacks allowed must be from the AC supply rather than from the inmate’s personal property is reasonably related to a legitimate penological interest,” the court wrote.

“We conclude that the plaintiffs’ submissions do not show that the restriction of the fourth book to a Bible, Koran or equivalent religious book affects their right to the free exercise of religion,” the court wrote.