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Seventh Circuit Approves Illinois Prison’s Rejection of PDR and Drug Guide

On March 9, 2012, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the dismissal of a prisoner’s civil rights action that alleged violation of his constitutional rights due to the censorship of two books by prison officials.

James Munson, an Illinois state prisoner serving a life sentence, suffers from a chronic medical condition and a variety of other ailments that require he take several prescription medications. He once became ill because medical personnel had accidentally given him another prisoner’s medicine for twelve days. To educate himself about his medications and other ways to treat himself, such as his diet, Munson ordered several books from a prison-approved store.

Prison officials screened his books and rejected the Physicians’ Desk Reference and the Complete Guide to Prescription and Nonprescription Drugs 2009. The rejection form stated the basis for the censorship was that the books were on a list of disapproved publications, as they posed a threat to security because they deal with “drugs.”

After exhausting his administrative remedies, Munson filed suit. The Illinois federal district court screened his complaint under 28 U.S.C. § 1915A(a) and dismissed it with prejudice for failing to state a cause of action. The dismissal counted as a strike under the Prison Litigation Reform Act, and Munson appealed.

“[T]he attachments to Munson’s complaint provided the prison’s legitimate penological interest in restricting his access,” wrote the Seventh Circuit. “Quite simply, the prison gave the books’ drug-related content as one of the reasons justifying its decision to restrict Munson’s access to the books, and we don’t need to look beyond the books’ title and the content to know the books contain information about drugs.”

The appellate court found that prison officials had properly reviewed each book, and had let Munson receive four other books that did not deal with drugs. Further, he had another alternative to read the censored books as they were available in the prison library – prison officials just did not want prisoners “to have the books in [their] cells or have personal ownership of the books.”

The Court of Appeals found no Eighth Amendment or Fourteenth Amendment violations. Rejecting the two books was not deliberate indifference to Munson’s serious medical needs, and he had no liberty interest in receiving the books. The Seventh Circuit also found no First Amendment violation, and thus affirmed the district court’s dismissal of the complaint. See: Munson v. Gaetz, 673 F.3d 630 (7th Cir. 2012).

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Related legal case

Munson v. Gaetz