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PLN lawsuit against Texas DOC mentioned in prison censorship article

American-Statesman, Jan. 1, 2010.
PLN lawsuit against Texas DOC mentioned in prison censorship article - American-Statesman 2010

Prison censorship policies vary widely

By Eric Dexheimer


Published: 7:45 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 30, 2010

Under ordinary circumstances in this country, an individual's right to read whatever he or she wants is protected by the Constitution. But it's another story behind bars.

"The standard for your set of rights in prison is quite different than that applied outside of prison," said Robert Bastress, a West Virginia University College of Law professor who specializes in constitutional rights.

Following the lead of a 1987 U.S. Supreme Court decision permitting censorship that is "reasonably related to legitimate penological interests," courts generally "have said the decision that a publication has the potential for creating problems is left almost entirely to the discretion of prison officials," said Bill Collins, a prison law expert who edits the Correctional Law Reporter from Washington state. "As a result, around the country, you will find substantial disagreement over what is allowed in."

Last week, a federal court upheld a Wisconsin warden's directive to remove all Dungeons & Dragons material from prisoners because it might lead to gang behavior or promote escape fantasies among inmates. In 2005, Texas banned "Take Back the Night," a collection of anti-pornography essays, because of a description of a person who got "sexual gratification from a murder" — a decision that would run afoul of federal prison policy that does not allow a text to be censored "solely because its content is religious, philosophical, political, social or sexual."

In recent years, some prison censorship policies have come under scrutiny. Prison Legal News, a Seattle-based publisher of a monthly magazine and distributor of books focusing on prisoners' rights, has sued prison systems in a dozen states and won most of its cases, said editor Paul Wright.

Three months ago, the organization filed suit in Texas after the Texas Department of Criminal Justice banned "Women Behind Bars: The Crisis of Women in the U.S. Prison System" and "Perpetual Prisoner Machine: How America Profits from Crime." The lawsuit in federal court says censors rejected the books based on single passages.

"Perpetual" was rejected because of a reference to a 1968 investigation into prison rape, the lawsuit asserts; "Women" was censored because of a paragraph describing how a physician overcame "the dark secret of her life. ... She had been forced to perform fellatio on her uncle when she was just four years old."

The passages disqualified the books because they "encouraged deviant criminal behavior," the censors said. The suit demands that the books be permitted in Texas lockups and that Prison Legal News' legal fees be paid.

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