In a rare instance where censorship and the rights of the incarcerated are colliding, a district judge is expected to rule on whether the South Dakota prison system’s porn-prohibiting policies are constitutional. Should porn in prisons be a civil right?
But the prison guards have been confiscating items like yoga magazines, a poster of the iconic Coppertone girl ad, Japanese comic books, the art book Matisse, Picasso and Modern Art in Paris as well as erotic novels Pride and Prejudice: The Wild and Wanton Edition and Thrones of Desire. Some argue they’re going beyond their stated rules––that pornography and sexually explicit content can’t be kept by inmates––and getting overzealous with what does or does not constitute porn. This isn’t the first time Sisney has raised a stink in court. Per the Argus Leader, “In 2016, the district court ruled mostly in Sisney’s favor [on the pornography issue]. But the state and Sisney both appealed. The appeals court decision vacates that 2016 decision because it weighed Sisney’s challenge[s] based on the earlier 2000 policy.” In the past, he has also challenged policies related to Kosher food and inadequate prison provisions infringing on his ability to practice his religion.
Since inmates are already denied so many other freedoms, it might be easy to overlook the gravity of censorship in prisons.
There should be a high burden of proof for the South Dakota prison system to prove that access to comics or a Coppertone ad, goes against “general penological interests.” This is to be expected from a state full of lawmakers that last year unanimously voted to consider porn as a “public health crisis” that “warrants the attention given to other statewide epidemics,” and a Republican Party that claimed “pornography is destroying the lives of millions” in its 2016 platform. But given that so many of these same conservatives also claim to be wedded to the First Amendment, perhaps it’s time to consider whether that commitment is principled or shallow.
After all, sometimes one’s right to view sexual imagery or risqué content comes into conflict with other people’s feelings that porn is icky. Since inmates are already denied so many other freedoms such as the right to privacy or unrestricted movement as the cost for being the alleged perpetrators of a crime, it might be easy to overlook the gravity of censorship in prisons. When we begin to see consuming sexual content as a “privilege” for any adult population, it’s a slippery slope. Absurd anti-porn regulations have broader implications for free speech, and we should tread lightly lest we begin to live in a society where censorship and confiscation become increasingly routine.
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