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#Prisonworld View – The First Amendment – What Does it Really Mean for Inmates?


#Prisonworld View – The First Amendment – What Does it Really Mean for Inmates?

Amendment I [1791]
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

Do inmates have the same First Amendment rights as everybody else?
The United States Supreme Court has said that “prison walls do not form a barrier separating prison inmates from the protections of the Constitution.” Nevertheless, inmates’ First Amendment rights are less extensive than other citizens’ and their rights can be limited due to security or other penological concerns. Because of the particular challenges administrators face running prisons, the Supreme Court has acknowledged there is a compelling government interest which warrants limiting prisoners’ rights. Courts have been deferential to prison officials’ assessments of security threats, and sensitive to their related regulatory decisions, even if such decisions impact inmates’ First Amendment rights.

A prison regulation that impinges on an inmate’s constitutional rights will be upheld in court if that regulation is reasonably related to legitimate penological objectives. This means that, generally, prison officials can ban extremist materials from prisons because of concerns that the distribution of such material will undermine prison security. Extremist books, leaflets, and magazines have been forbidden to prisoners on this basis. Such material has not been allowed through the mail and has not been kept in the prison library. However, prisons have less discretion to limit inmates’ religious practices than other First Amendment rights due to a new federal law. Because of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), prison officials’ discretion in limiting access to extremist material may depend in part on whether such material is related to an inmate’s religious exercise. Therefore, prison regulations that affect religious exercise, including access to religious literature, will be reviewed carefully if challenged in court.

How should prison officials evaluate whether particular material can be withheld from inmates? Generally, the First Amendment does not allow speech to be censored by the government because of the content of that speech. The government can only limit the time, place, and manner of speech. However, because inmates have more limited First Amendment rights than other citizens, some content-based discrimination is allowed for security reasons.

For example, the United States Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit upheld a prison official’s decision to withhold entire issues of the magazine, Muhammad Speaks, because certain articles in the magazine created a danger of violence by advocating racial, religious, or national hatred. This decision was prior to the passage of RLUIPA, and therefore the Court’s analysis might be somewhat different today. Under current law, if having the entire magazine withheld was determined to be a substantial burden on inmates’ free exercise rights, the Court might require that the offending material be removed rather than the entire issue being withheld. Regulations that exclude publications from a prison because of security concerns have been found constitutional when the regulations have required individualized review of any material before it is banned, notification to inmates that the material has been denied, and the possibility of review of such decisions. Courts have tended to find prison regulations that ban all literature from particular groups unconstitutional. However, the determination of the constitutionality of a given regulation or the implementation of the regulation has tended to be very fact-specific. Courts look not only at the regulation at issue but also consider the nature of the prison (high, medium, or low security) and the particular administrative challenges faced by the prison (such as crowding and quantity of incoming mail) in determining  reasonableness, or the practical existence of less restrictive alternative measures.

Constitution of the United States –
We the people of the United States, in order
to form a more perfect union, establish justice,
insure domestic tranquility, provide for
the common defense, promote the general
welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to
ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish
this Constitution for the United States
of America.

 The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment has been interpreted by the Supreme Court as erecting a separation of church and state.

Would you be surprised at how many people don’t even know their rights? Know Your Rights. Fight for Your Rights. Then Help Others Fight for Theirs.


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