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Seventh Circuit Affirms Prison Policy Banning Adult Magazines, with Caveats

Tobias Payton, a prisoner at the Stateville Correctional Center in Illinois, was denied access to a number of adult magazines depicting naked or scantily clad women, and filed suit in federal court alleging violation of his First Amendment rights. Those rights, he argued, included “access to, as well as creation and dissemination of, oral and written communication, including magazines.”

The district court agreed with Stateville’s policy banning adult magazines and granted summary judgment to the defendants, citing a former warden’s statement that such publications constitute a possible threat to institutional security.

Payton appealed the censorship of the magazines, which included Bootylicious, Black Video Illustrated, Players Nasty, Black Tail, Adam Film World Guide Porn Stars, Tight and Naughty Neighbors.

The former warden, Marcus Hardy, named as a defendant in the lawsuit, had advanced several justifications for the policy, including his belief that “(1) the inmates will engage in black-market trading for the publications and photographs; (2) inmate-on-inmate violence and intimidation increases, especially when these publications become lost, stolen, and/or when there is a perception that the publications are not being fairly traded or shared; and (3) female employees ... are more often objectified and harassed....”

On December 1, 2015 the Seventh Circuit ruled in favor of the prison’s ban on adult reading materials, citing the standard set forth in Turner v. Safley, 482 U.S. 78 (1987): “When a prison regulation impinges on inmates’ constitutional rights, the regulation is valid if it is reasonably related to legitimate penological purposes.” The appellate court cautioned that “Great latitude is not the same as unreviewable discretion,” but noted the only evidence submitted regarding the policy banning adult publications was Hardy’s sworn statement.

“[T]he plaintiff produced no evidence contrary to that of the warden,” or evidence that indicated the warden’s statement “was based more upon impression than data,” the Court of Appeals wrote. The Court’s finding was limited to the facts and procedural history of this case, and it remarked that its decision to uphold the publication ban was not “ironclad.”

“Stateville’s policy may be ineffectual – and it is costly. Staff is deflected to skimming boatloads of pornographic magazines. Prisoners are denied access to reading material that would lighten slightly the burden of imprisonment in a maximum-security prison and might reduce rather than increase disciplinary problems at the prison,” the appellate court stated. “The Illinois Department of Corrections, which owns and administers Illinois state prisons, might be well advised to study Stateville’s pornography policy – and with an open mind.”

Citing a 2011 study entitled “Studies on Sexually Explicit Materials in State Prisons,” published in the Criminal Justice Policy Review, the Court of Appeals said the study found “little or no existing evidence” connecting pornography with an increase in violence or mistreatment of women – suggesting that the Court, given more evidence and a stronger argument against a ban on adult publications by prison officials, might rule differently on the same issue in a different case. The judgment of the district court was affirmed. See: Payton v. Cannon, 806 F.3d 1109 (7th Cir. 2015). 

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Related legal case

Payton v. Cannon