Jun. 29, 2006 –The U.S. Supreme Court upheld a Pennsylvania prison policy yesterday, saying that officials have the legal authority to keep mainstream newspapers and magazines from the most incorrigible inmates.
In a 6-2 ruling, the high court accepted the state’s argument that the policy, which is one of the most restrictive in the nation, was needed to encourage better behavior among the “worst of the worst” in the state prison system.
“While we do not deny the constitutional importance of the interests in question, we find, on the basis of the record now before us, that prison officials have set forth adequate legal support for the policy,” wrote Justice Stephen G. Breyer.
The decision came in a case brought by a Pittsburgh man, Ronald Banks, 41, who is serving a life sentence for murder and is now confined in the long-term segregation unit at the state prison in Fayette.
Banks went to court on behalf of himself and other inmates in the 40-prisoner unit in a constitutional test of how far prisons can go in restricting reading material and personal photos without violating the First Amendment.
Andrew Shubin, an attorney for Banks, said he was disappointed but not surprised by the ruling. “Prisoners face additional hurdles — extraordinarily high hurdles — on issues that touch on security and rehabilitation,” he said.
Prison officials would not disclose Banks’ disciplinary history, but his prison behavior earned him a cell in long-term segregation, customarily a place for inmates who pose security risks or have a history of escape or violence.
Inmates placed in the most restrictive part of that unit can have religious and legal periodicals, writing paper and two paperback books, but not mainstream newspapers, magazines or personal photographs.
Such prisoners also are kept in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day with no access to radio or TV, and they have phone privileges only in an emergency and one visit a month from a family member.
While Banks challenged the ban on newspapers as excessive, attorneys for state prison officials said the policy was necessary to give inmates an incentive to improve their behavior, and for safety reasons.
The high court held in a 1987 case that “prison walls do not form a barrier separating prison inmates from the protections of the Constitution.”
When a regulation “impinges” on a constitutional right, the court said then, the rule is valid if it is reasonably related to “legitimate penological interests.”
Breyer concluded that, under that standard, Banks did not show that the Pennsylvania regulation was unreasonable. Breyer was joined by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., and Justices David H. Souter and Anthony M. Kennedy. Justice Clarence Thomas concurred in the decision, but wrote a separate opinion that was joined by Justice Antonin Scalia.
Justice John Paul Stevens, one of the two dissenters, said that the ban on newspapers and photographs was excessive.
“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,” he wrote.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the other dissenter, said she found some of the state’s justification “too tenuous to be plausible.” Inmates, she said, were unable to get the Christian Science Monitor but allowed to have the Jewish Daily Forward, barred from reading about the war in Iraq and Hurricane Katrina but allowed to read romance novels.
The high court ruling reversed last year’s decision by the Philadelphia-based U.S. Court of Appeals, which concluded, in a 2-to-1 ruling, that the policy went too far. The newest justice, Samuel A. Alito Jr., was the dissenter in that case when he was on the Third Circuit. He did not consider the case in the high court.
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