Iowa Inmates Granted Access to Nudity, Not Porn

DES MOINES, Iowa (CN) – An Iowa judge ordered state prison officials to stop barring inmates’ access to materials that contain non-sexually explicit depictions of nudity while a lawsuit brought by 13 inmates is heard by the trial court.

The temporary injunction issued Wednesday by Polk County District Judge Scott Rosenberg and made available Thursday ordered that the Iowa Department of Corrections “shall not prevent the distribution of materials to the plaintiffs and other inmates similarly situated that features mere, non-sexually explicit, nudity.”

However, the judge ordered that materials considered by prison officials to be sexually explicit, as defined by administrative rules, shall not be distributed to inmates but stored and preserved until there is a final judgment in the inmates’ lawsuit.

Rosenberg wrote that the state’s prohibition of the distribution of material that features nudity “indeed interferes with the constitutional rights of the inmates.”

A spokesman for the Iowa Department of Corrections declined to comment on the injunction Friday. A request for comment from a spokesman for the inmate plaintiffs was not immediately returned.

Thirteen Anamosa State Penitentiary inmates sued the state last September, arguing a statute enacted by the Legislature in 2018 violates their First Amendment rights by denying them access to materials that are sexually explicit or feature nudity.

In February, Rosenberg denied a motion by Iowa prison officials, represented by the attorney general’s office, to dismiss the lawsuit as failing to state a claim. He rejected the argument that the court lacked jurisdiction to hear the suit.

The Iowa law, which is modeled on language in federal law regulating federal prisons, says that funds appropriated to the Department of Corrections “or other funds made available to the department shall not be used to distribute or make available any commercially published information or material to an inmate when such information or material is sexually explicit or features nudity.”

The prisoners argued in their pro se complaint that the statute is unconstitutional.

“This law sweeps so broadly as to prohibit substantial amounts of constitutionally protected speech, art, fine art, etc.,” the lawsuit states. “Moreover, it is clear that the Iowa Department of Corrections (IDOC) intend[ed] to take property already acquired and/or acquired legally with private funds.”

The state argues that prison inmates have no constitutional right to pornography. It says the distribution of pornography in prison would compromise prison security, cause some inmates to act out in sexual aggression toward prison staff or other inmates, interfere with prison rehabilitation efforts, and harm psychologically unfit inmates.

Rosenberg wrote that the U.S. Supreme Court has made clear that prison inmates do not forfeit their constitutional rights, and any limitations on those rights may not be greater than necessary to protect the government’s interest in the “penological objectives” of the prison system.

The judge found that “at least part of the ban that includes material featuring nudity may be overly broad.”

The definition of “nudity” in the Iowa Department of Corrections’ administrative rules “could ban inmates from access to legitimate art, literature and other publications,” Rosenberg wrote. Under the department’s definition, “a medical journal depicting the human anatomy could be banned.”

“Interestingly, at the oral argument in this matter, the plaintiffs adamantly stated that they are opposed to pornography, and are not seeking access to pornography,” the judge wrote in the injunction order.

He cited the plaintiffs’ petition, which states that prison officials seek to deny materials to inmates that the plaintiffs “may consider as meaningful and beautiful,” and the prisoners said they do not find “nudity or anything that is ‘sexually explicit’ in the context of the arts obscene.”

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