Iowa Judge to Decide If Inmates Can Have Porn

DES MOINES, Iowa (CN) – A state attorney urged an Iowa judge Thursday to throw out a lawsuit brought by prison inmates who say the state violated their constitutional rights by denying them access to materials that are sexually explicit or feature nudity.

The case should be dismissed because the state has a penological interest in banning pornography in its prisons, Assistant Attorney General William Hill told Polk County District Court Judge Scott Rosenberg at Thursday’s hearing.

The inmates, who participated in the hearing by phone from the prison, argued that their case is not about pornography but about their constitutional right to have access to literature and art that may include nudity, like what may be seen on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Rome.

Judge Rosenberg said at the conclusion of Thursday’s hearing he would rule later on the state’s motion to dismiss.

Thirteen Anamosa State Penitentiary inmates sued the state last September, arguing the statute enacted by the Legislature in 2018 violates their First Amendment rights.

The statute, which is modeled on language in federal law regulating federal prisons, states that funds appropriated to the Iowa 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.”

“This law sweeps so broadly as to prohibit substantial amounts of constitutionally protected speech, art, fine art, etc.,” the prisoners argued in their pro se complaint. “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.”

But Hill told Judge Rosenberg on Thursday that the suit should be dismissed prior to production of documents or testimony because it is “common sense that pornography in a prison is a bad idea.”

In response, inmate Jack Leonard Hays, who is serving a life sentence for kidnapping, told the judge the state is wrong to characterize the case as being about pornography.

“We concede that no one has a right to pornography, not citizens, not prisoners, no one,” Hays said.

He said what the state has removed from prisons includes even the sort of nudity that could be found in classical art and literature.

“Not everybody considers nudity obscene,” Hays said.

In its brief in support of dismissing the case, the attorney general’s office rejected all of the inmates’ constitutional claims.

“The right to pornography while in prison is not a fundamental right,” the brief states.  

The issue is whether the state has a rational basis for it statute that is “reasonably related to legitimate penological interests.”

The Iowa Legislature’s rationale in banning prison pornography is security and rehabilitation, the attorney general argues in the brief.

“The goals of security and rehabilitation are more than sufficient justifications to pass the rational basis test under Iowa law,” it says. “Therefore, no violation can be established under the Iowa Constitution.”

A similar lawsuit filed in federal court by an inmate in a Fort Dodge, Iowa, correctional facility says Iowa’s statute that forbids “all periodicals which contain any nudity, no matter the purpose” violates inmates’ First Amendment rights.

U.S. District Judge Robert Pratt in Des Moines ruled Jan. 2 that inmate Michael Lindgren’s claim “does not appear to be wholly frivolous and may proceed.” Pratt also directed the appointment of counsel to represent Lindgren, and the court granted the appointed counsel until March 15 to file a formal complaint.

Pornography is banned in the federal prison system and in several states. The Seventh Circuit ruled in 2015 that Illinois inmates have no First Amendment right to receive porn magazines in prison. Connecticut implemented a ban on sexually explicit material in prison and jails in 2012, and Texas also has a ban.

Overseas, however, rules are different. Denmark reportedly allows pornographic books and pictures but they are not to be displayed on walls.

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