Prison revises limits on speech

Challenge by editor of publication termed racist brings changes

September 14, 2007|By Jennifer Skalka | Jennifer Skalka,Sun reporter

The publication, sent to an inmate at the Eastern Correctional Institution, includes a cartoon of a black woman drawn to resemble an ape. Next to her, a white man in a suit makes a racist remark about her hair.

One look at it and the prison's warden instituted a ban on the monthly newsletter, which is produced by the Nationalist Movement, a white supremacist group based in Learned, Miss.

"You have a very diverse population behind prison walls and, if this were to get out, it could pose some sort of a security issue, if people get their feathers ruffled over it," said Rosa Cruz, a spokeswoman for the prison system.

But the ban prompted a legal threat from the newsletter's editor, who says that prisoners have the constitutional right to read what they want - even if that publication quotes skinheads. The Maryland attorney general's office agreed, at least in part, ordering the prison to lift the ban. Instead, the state lawyers said, the warden will review each edition to determine if it comports with department policy.

The conflict raises fundamental questions about the civil liberties of inmates. What rights do prisoners have to receive incendiary material via mail? And how far can the state go in withholding or censoring those publications in the interest of maintaining order behind bars?

By the state's standard, Richard Barrett's circular, called All the Way, pushes the boundaries of those freedoms - especially when many of its slurs are directed at blacks, who make up three-quarters of the 3,100 or so of the inmates at Eastern Correctional Institution in Westover. The issue that warden Kathleen S. Green banned said, for example, that "Negroes carry and spread the most AIDS and other communicable diseases" and that "Negroes have the lowest IQ in the world."

Gays and Jews are also subject to Barrett's taunts in the journal, though he was painstaking in an interview not to mention these groups. Instead, he suggests that he and his movement are "pro-majority." The Nationalist slogan, Barrett said, is: One Language, One Set of Laws, One Flag.

Barrett, a Mississippi lawyer, described the prison ban as a hit on the constitutionally protected rights of all Americans.

"There are people out there who are shaking the timbers and winning some free speech victories, and they're not all beatnik, bomb-throwing crazies," Barrett said.

After Barrett cautioned that Green overstepped her bounds, the Maryland attorney general's office advised him that the full ban would be lifted and that William Minton, an inmate serving 30 years for second-degree murder, could once again receive All the Way. Cruz said that effective this week, the policy on materials mailed to prisoners at the Eastern Correctional Institution has been revised.

"The warden may refuse to deliver all or part of the publication if the publication threatens the security, good order, or discipline of the institution or if the publication threatens or poses an immediate threat of violence or physical harm to anyone at ECI," Cruz said.

Through Cruz, warden Green declined requests for comment.

The Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services policy for inmate mail gives prison officials room to determine the appropriateness of materials. For example, a letter or document cannot describe escape plans or the construction or use of weapons ammunition, bombs or other devices designed to inflict bodily harm. It cannot offer a how-to guide for brewing alcoholic beverages. It shouldn't be sexually explicit or advocate the formation of inmate unions.

If an inmate or the publisher believes a letter or mailing was unjustly banned, he has the right to appeal to the commissioner of correction.

"Attempting to keep out the publication on a pretext to curtail a pro-majority political viewpoint is not an acceptable procedure," Barrett said.

David Fathi, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union's National Prison Project, said American prisons do not have the right to ban a publication in perpetuity.

"Publications should never be excluded because they advocate unpopular ideas," Fathi said. "The exclusion should be restricted to publications that actually advocate violence. Prison officials obviously have to have some latitude for making that call."

Green had banned other publications as well. An Aug. 1 memo from her makes clear she was adding All the Way and two other periodicals to a list of banned magazines: Resistance and National Socialist. Last year, Green forbade subscriptions to Maxim, Stuff, Scratch and Don Diva.

Those restrictions were lifted as part of the decision to review All the Way on a case-by-case basis.

Mark Pitcavage, director of investigative research for the Anti-Defamation League, says Barrett's group is "very small" and not a force among the extreme right. But he cautioned that All the Way is "definitely a racist publication" and said the ADL counts Barrett as "a committed white supremacist."

"It is an explicitly racist group with a very unpleasant ideology," Pitcavage said. "But that doesn't by itself mean that its activities are illegal or that they should be banned from an institution. It depends upon the content of a particular issue."

Barrett, who according to the ADL has represented a Georgia group that defends members of the local Ku Klux Klan, said he will be watching Maryland's prisons carefully. "We don't agree with minority rule," he said.

The ADL, on its Web site, offers a warning about Barrett: "Whenever Barrett decides to take to the streets, local officials and law enforcement must deal with ... the possibility of violence."

jennifer.skalka@baltsun.com

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