Prisoner’s First Amendment Rights

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The following video is a sample lesson from the Bachelor’s of Science Degree in Corrections & Juvenile Justice Studies degree program.

Prisoners’ rights cases concerning religion are about religious practices, not religious beliefs.  Some practices heard by courts include wearing religious jewelry, wearing hair a certain way, refusing to take a shower in front of others, demanding that the prison allow a sweat lodge to be built, wearing a head covering, demanding the prison provide a pork-free diet, and demanding the space and time for religious ceremonies.

Documents for restricting religious practices in prison usually involve security.  It the government makes a good case that the practice interferes with the security of the institution, then the courts always decide in their favor.  If the practice has no security implications, and the state’s only concern is convenience, then the courts have sometimes upheld the prisoners’ rights to practice.

For example, in Cruz v. Beto in 1972, the Court held that inmates cannot be denied the opportunity to practice an unconventional American religion—Buddhism—when other inmates are given the chance to pursue conventional faiths.  But, in Walker v. Blackwell, the Court upheld the state’s right to deny Muslims special meals during Ramadan, a religious holiday, because they asked for the meals at special times, with special foods, for 30 days.

The First Amendment also protects an individual’s right of speech.  For prisoners, the arguments typically surround with censorship of incoming and outgoing mail and publications.  The prisoner’s right to receive mail and publications is balanced against the prison’s right to protect safety and security.

One issue concerning the First Amendment and prison regulations includes access to media.  Courts typically have upheld inmates’ rights to contact the media through letters, although they have rejected the media’s rights to interview or visit inmates.  In cases such as Saxbe v. Washington Post Co.Pell v. Procunier, and Houchins v. KQED, courts have ruled that the media has no greater right of access to prisons or jails than the general public.

Prisoner mail issues are also raised under the First Amendment.  Courts have established that the use of mail lists that restrict inmates to “approved” individuals – These lists are generally upheld when inmates can add individuals to the list and there is a valid reason for denying a request.  Receipt of books and packages are usually allowed, but prisons may specify prohibited items and may have a “publisher only” rule that limits books only to those sent directly from publishers.  These regulations have generally been upheld as rationally related to prison security.

Another First Amendment challenge issue is based on the right to associate and assemble.  These cases usually concern prisoners’ unions or visitation.  The states have emerged victorious from most of these battles.  For example, in Kentucky v. Thompson, the Court held that the prison was not required to provide due process protections before denying an individual inmate a visit with a certain individual on his visiting list.  In Overton v. Bazzetta, the Court ruled that strict visitation rules, including mandating non-contact visits for a wide range of offenders and no visits for some inmates were not a violation of constitutional rights.

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