The right to read upheld

Our view: Correction authorities make right call in reversing ban of inmate's book from the Hagerstown prison, but policy still needs to be changed

July 20, 2011

Maryland corrections officials made the right call today when they lifted the ban on a book written by a inmate Marshall "Eddie" Conway, but the troublesome — and almost certainly unconstitutional — policies that led to the banning in the first place remain. The book "Marshall Law —The Life & Times of a Baltimore Black Panther," is no longer prohibited reading at the Maryland Correctional Training Center in Hagerstown, but the prison system is sticking by its assertion that it can restrict inmates' speech rights beyond what is necessary to maintain security.

Originally prison officials said the autobiography had been banned because the author and the inmates whose photos appear in the book failed to notify the victims of their crimes of the book's publication. A lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union had questioned this procedure, saying giving the victims tacit veto power over an inmate's right to speak out is a violation of the First Amendment.

Rick Binetti, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, said the ban had been lifted because all the proper notifications had now been made.

The author of the book is a former minister of defense for the Baltimore Black Panther Party and was convicted of killing Baltimore police officer Donald Sager in 1970. He is serving a life sentence and is being held at the Jessup Correctional Institute. The book is co-authored by Dominque Stevenson, a prison activist with the American Friends Service Committee.

A case can be made to ban a book that threatens prison security. But that was not the claim here.

Maryland corrections officials say it has been their longstanding policy to notify crime victims when the inmates who committed the crimes are being interviewed or photographed. If the victims or their families objected to these sessions, corrections officials have typically bowed to their wishes. Notifying crime victims of an inmate's upcoming media event or book publication is an admirable courtesy. It is a kindness for the state to make sure they aren't caught by surprise. But giving the victims power over an inmate's right to speak out is wrong.

When a person goes to prison he still retains some First Amendment rights. Courts have held that authorities can put restrictions on the free speech of inmates, but these restrictions must be reasonable and directly related to prison security. The banning of "Marshall Law" failed on both those counts.

To its credit, the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Corrections encourages inmates to read. Its libraries follow the guidelines of the American Association of Libraries, which state that even those individuals that a lawful society chooses to imprison permanently deserve access to information, to literature, and to a window on the world. As for censorship of reading material, the guidelines say that only those items that present an actual compelling and imminent risk to safety and security should be restricted.

Go to prison in Maryland, and you lose many privileges. Among are the right to vote (for twice-convicted felons), the ability to freely move about the community and the right to make unmonitored telephone calls.

But the right to speak should not be one of them. Prison officials sidestepped the issue this time, but they should change their victim notification requirement before the courts do it for them.

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