First Circuit rules prison may restrict sexually explicit inmate mail

[JURIST] The US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit [official website] ruled [opinion text] Tuesday that a Massachusetts regulation prohibiting prisoners from receiving sexually explicit mail is constitutional. The petitioners challenged the portions of 103 CMR § 481.15 [text, PDF], which regulate the receipt of sexually explicit pictures in the mail and the display of sexually explicit or suggestive images, as violating the First Amendment freedom of speech [Cornell LII backgrounders] provision. In ruling that the regulation did not violate petitioners' constitutional rights, the court found that a legitimate government interest existed in the promulgation of the regulation, which was aimed at ensuring prison safety and security. The court also found that alternative means exist for exercising First Amendment rights that are not prohibited by the regulation, that the correctional officials deserve heavy discretion in finding that the receipt of sexually explicit material would impact the facility negatively, and that the burden of proving viable alternatives to the law were was not met by the petitioners. The other constitutional challenges to the regulation were also rejected as not sufficiently developed.

The Massachusetts prison commissioner defended the regulation on the grounds that it was designed to promote prison safety and security. Violence and rape continue to be problems in the US prison system. In July 2006, the US Department of Justice (DOJ) [official website] reported [text, PDF] that sexual violence in US prisons, perpetrated by both inmates and prison staff, often goes unreported [JURIST report] because abused inmates fear a reprisal or do not trust prison staff. In May 2006, The UN Committee against Torture [official website] urged the US to do more to protect domestic prisoners and suspects from violence and threats of violence. In 2005, the DOJ released its first report [text, PDF; JURIST report] on prison rape in accordance with the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003 [DOJ backgrounder], but admitted that most incidents were probably never reported and their numbers could not reliably be estimated. The report says [official press release] that authorities verified almost 2,100 cases of sexual violence out of more than 8,000 reported cases.



 

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