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Prison Music Program Not Constitutionally Required

A Pennsylvania federal district court has held that limitations imposed by prison officials on prisoners performing in “independent” music programs do not violate the constitution. The ruling came after a three-day non-jury trial in a civil rights action filed by prisoner Richard Young.

Young was a prisoner at Pennsylvania’s Graterford Prison, where he was involved in the facility's Independent Band Program. He was a guitarist in a prison band called “Dark Mischief.” The program came to a crashing halt due to a public uproar over VH-1 airing a piece on the Graterford music program that featured Dark Mischief.

The mother of one of the band member’s murder victims started the outcry, criticizing the “glorification” of the prison music program by the media. The Pennsylvania Legislature passed a resolution urging VH-1 to donate the show’s proceeds to the Commonwealth’s Office of Victim Advocates. Governor Schweiker appeared on “The O’Reilly Factor” in October 2002, stating the Secretary of Pennsylvania's Department of Corrections (PDOC) and Graterford’s Superintendent “ought to have their heads examined” for allowing the prisoner band to perform on television.

Gov. Schweiker ordered the music program stopped at Graterford. A suspension of the program ensued, but cooler heads prevailed. A committee was ordered to study all PDOC music programs. The committee learned that the Independent Band Program allowed up to sixty prisoners to practice on three different floors, which was seen as a security threat because they were often unsupervised.

A new music program was instituted that severely limited the practice of institutional bands and musical groups sponsored by prisoners. The musical groups could only perform at talent shows and special events convened at the discretion of the Superintendent. Practice was limited to three hours before the show, and rehearsals had to take place in the auditorium under the direct supervision of staff.

The district court held that musical expression is an expressive form of entertainment that is protected by the First Amendment. The test of Turner v. Safely, 482 U.S. 78 (1987) was applied to determine if Young’s right of expression had been violated by the new restrictive rules.

The Court found the prison music programs before and after the VH-1 incident were essentially the same -- various music classes were still available, and prisoners could still join bands. Talent shows and special events took place up to three times a year, and prisoners could perform music individually in their cells.

As a result the Court held 1) Prisoners have other means to exercise their right to play music; 2) Accommodating the plaintiff’s right to go back to the “old” music program would undermine prison safety; and 3) There was an alternative available to accommodate the plaintiff's rights without serious risk to prison safety. Thus, Young’s First Amendment claim failed.

The district court further held that Graterford’s religious music program did not violate the Establishment Clause, and that the religious music program was not an Equal Protection violation. The Court entered judgment for the prison official defendants. See: Young v. Beard, USDC, ED PA, Case No, 04-2211 (Jan. 31, 2007), 2007 WL 339031.

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