Sixth Circuit Upholds Interview Ban for Inmates After Riot

CINCINNATI (CN) – Journalists and a group of Ohio inmates who led a riot at Lucasville Prison failed to persuade the Sixth Circuit on Wednesday to strike down a policy forbidding in-person interviews.

Holding the record for the longest prison riot in U.S. history, the turmoil that spanned 11 days in April 1993 involved a dozen corrections officers taken hostage. One of those guards and nine inmates were killed before the prisoners and Warden Arthur Tate negotiated, 21-point agreement.

Though the Ohio Department of Corrections did adopt changes last year to how it classifies inmates for security classification, it previously denied all requests to let inmates involved in the riot be interviewed. Under this policy, any inmate who belonged to the “restricted population” was barred from being interviewed for any purpose.

The prison made the policy change following a 2013 lawsuit by inmates and a number of journalists, including a Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times writer, and a federal judge thereafter agreed to dismiss remaining claims.

Following oral argument last month, a three-judge panel of the Sixth Circuit on Wednesday rejected the constitutional claims by the inmates and journalists concerning the continued ban against one-on-one interviews with “high-security inmates.”

“The prohibition on face-to-face media interviews with restricted population inmates applied uniformly and, contrary to plaintiffs’ assertion, did not depend on the anticipated content of any interview,” U.S. Circuit Judge Julia Smith Gibbons wrote for the court.

Citing the 1989 Supreme Court case Thornburgh v. Abbott and the 1987 case Turner v. Safley, Gibbons told the plaintiffs that prisons are within their rights even in denying interviews based on their anticipated content.

“Thornburgh makes clear that it is not the regulation itself that must be neutral, but instead that Turner requires ‘the governmental objective underlying the regulations at issue [be] legitimate and neutral,’” Gibbons wrote (emphasis in original).

Gibbons added that this policy “could be articulated as a ban on specific content … [but] its purpose ‘further[s] an important or substantial governmental interest unrelated to the suppression of expression’: prison security.”

Judge Gibbons explained that if allowed, such interviews can make celebrities of inmates and increase their influence inside the prison, which can lead to increased tension among inmates, as well as an increased risk of violent disturbances.

“Therefore, there is a rational connection between a policy prohibiting face-to-face interviews with Lucasville participants and the legitimate, neutral penological interest of prison security,” Gibbons wrote.

U.S. Circuit Judges Richard Suhrheinrich and Eric Clay concurred.

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