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PLN editor quoted on banned publications in VT prison system

Seven Days, Dec. 5, 2012.
PLN editor quoted on banned publications in VT prison system - Seven Days 2012

Did Someone Miss the Memo on Prisons' List of Banned Magazines?

Seven Days (VT)

Local Matters
By Kevin J. Kelley [12.05.12]

Two staff members of a local housing action group were attending a recent training session for prospective volunteers at Chittenden Regional Corrrectional Facility, a women’s prison in South Burlington, when the subject of banned publications came up. Matthew Cropp and Adelle Lawrence, who work at Pathways to Housing Vermont, both say an instructor informed the 30-person training group that Seven Days is among the publications disallowed behind bars.

“You can thank the male inmates for that,” Cropp and Lawrence recall the instructor telling the group. Cropp, who attended the training because his counseling job involves contacts with jail inmates or ex-offenders, assumes the trainer was referring to sexually explicit content in the paper, such as the sex-advice column or personal ads that sometimes include sexually suggestive language.

Calls to the Department of Corrections didn’t clarify what happened at the training session in question but did reveal a relatively new prison policy on inmates’ access to magazines that has gone largely unscrutinized. Corrections officials also suggested the new rules may not always be followed by prison employees.

Even DOC higher-ups weren’t completely clear about which publications are banned behind bars. DOC Commissioner Andrew Pallito’s executive assistant, Penny Carpenter, initially confirmed that Seven Days is, in fact, banned from Vermont prisons due to sexually explicit content. Soon afterward, however, the DOC’s facilities director, William Lawhorn, called to say that Carpenter was mistaken.

“I apologize for you receiving inaccurate information based upon your first inquiry,” Lawhorn wrote in a follow-up email message, Seven Days has not been banned at any Vermont correctional institution, he said.

Bob Arnell, superintendent of Chittenden Regional, said he was unaware of any trainer saying the paper is not allowed inside. Both Lawhorn and Arnell acknowledged, however, that DOC policy may not always be scrupulously applied by local officials.

Until two years ago, the DOC didn’t have formal rules regarding inmates’ access to publications. Prisons only had “general guidelines” forbidding pornography, Lawhorn says, adding that those guidelines “did get interpreted differently at different facilities.”

Pallito put an official 18-page policy on the books in 2010 with the aim of clarifying the rules. Today, there’s a list of 40 issues of publications that have been banned in Vermont prisons during the past two years. Among them are some unsurprising entries, such as the 102nd edition of The Shooter’s Bible and various editions of Playboy.

The winter 2011 swimsuit issue of Sports Illustrated is on the list, as are several editions of soft-core Maxim magazine. Wired magazine for February 2011 is banned because it “facilitates criminal activity,” according to DOC officials. “The Underworld Exposed” is the theme of that edition of Wired, which includes stories on “The Anarchist Cookbook, a guide on how to build bombs, and a sidebar headlined “How to Ship Coke.”

Outdoor Life for February of this year also makes the list because it allegedly “constitutes a threat to the safety, security or order of the facility.” Was it that issue’s story headlined “Make Your Own Snow Camo” that triggered the ban? Or maybe it was the “Shooting” section with a report on tests of the Beretta A400 Xtreme weapon and a comparison of the Ruger and Steyr rifles.

The DOC policy states at its outset that the Vermont prison system intends for inmates to be able to correspond with those on the outside and to receive publications and audio/visual material “consistent with the security needs and institutional order of a correctional facility.”

Books, magazines and newspapers are potentially available to prisoners only by mail. Visitors are not permitted to bring printed or visual material in to a Vermont corrections facility, except when it relates directly to legal matters or for approved instructional purposes.

Pallito’s policy statement says that a publication will be prohibited only when it is deemed — in accordance with a multilevel review by prison officials — to constitute “a threat to the safety, security or order of the facility,” or if it features “nudity or sexually explicit material.” The directive defines nudity as “a pictorial depiction where buttocks, genitals or female breasts are exposed.” It says the term “sexually explicit” refers to “a pictorial depiction of actual or simulated sexual acts, including intercourse, oral sex and masturbation.”

The ban on sexually explicit material is intended “to assist with rehabilitation and treatment objectives, to reduce sexual harassment, prevent a hostile work environment, and to fully implement the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act,” the directive declares.

When DOC officials deem a publication a security risk, both the publisher and the intended recipient of the magazine are notified, and the inmate has an opportunity to appeal the decision.

Is the state abridging inmates’ First Amendment right to look at legal material? Allen Gilbert, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont, says a state may have a sound basis for denying some prisoners access to certain types of material.

“You could argue that with sex offenders, this is the kind of material you want to keep away from them,” Gilbert remarks. “Some sex offenders have issues involving dominance and control over women, and pornography can suggest that. It wouldn’t be considered consistent with rehabilitation objectives.”

Gilbert notes that prison inmates do not have the same rights as unincarcerated Americans. “There’s certainly no right to privacy in jail,” he points out. “You get searched pretty regularly.”

But Paul Wright, cofounder and editor of the Brattleboro-based national publication Prison Legal News, sees bans on newspapers and magazines as justifiable in only limited circumstances.

“There are certain things [prison authorities] have a legitimate interest in censoring,” says Wright, a former inmate who launched PLN 22 years ago. “Examples would be information on how to make bombs or how to escape from facilities.”

Defending a ban on sexually explicit materials by referring to the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003 amounts to “a bunch of bullshit,” in Wright’s estimation. “Is harassment or rape in our prisons going to be stopped by a ban on porn? Please.”

Wright argues that there’s no correlation between access to pornography and incidents of sexual assault. He says studies show that, if anything, sexual aggression becomes less common if such material is made available to prisoners.

“A lot of the nation’s prisons are run by evangelical Christians,” Wright says. “They can’t stop the rest of the country from having abortions or reading porn, so they stop inmates from having abortions or reading porn.”

Court challenges have been initiated in Connecticut and other states against bans on sexually explicit materials in prison, a controversy addressed earlier this year in a article headlined, “Free Willy: Should prison inmates have the right to masturbate?”

In Gilbert’s experience, directives from the DOC “aren’t uniformly applied at all facilities,” and Wright agrees. Often, both men say, officials at local jails will ignore or misinterpret a state corrections policy.

Today, Lawhorn says there should be no confusion at local lockups about the standards and procedures for allowing or banning publications. Officers at the women’s prison and all other corrections facilities in Vermont were given “extensive training” soon after the policy was decreed, Lawhorn says.

“I’m pretty certain that every one of our facilities understands the process now,” he says.