Hartford (AP) — A group of prisoners has begun a letter-writing campaign to protest what they see as an unfair ban on pornography inside the state's correctional institutions.
The Department of Correction announced in July that it would be banning all material that contains "pictorial depictions of sexual activity or nudity" from the prisons beginning next summer.
The state says the ban is intended to improve the work environment for prison staffers, especially female staffers, who might be inadvertently exposed to pornography.
"While it is not supposed to be displayed, it is still visible to staff, whether it be on the inside of a foot locker or underneath their bunks, so they are still exposed to it," said Correction Department spokesman Brian Garnett. "And secondarily, is the fact that this is contrary to our rehabilitative efforts, particularly when it comes to sex offenders."
The department has received about three dozen letters from inmates, many of them form letters, claiming the recently adopted ban violates the inmates' First Amendment rights. Some of those letters also were sent to The Associated Press.
They suggest either lifting the ban or providing inmates with alternatives such as "cable programming that offers and displays nudity, also sexual activity."
The letters say the suggestions are being made to avoid litigation. The department has not received any lawsuits, Garnett said.
Bill Dunlop, a law professor at Quinnipiac University, said there is a constitutional argument to be made. But, he said the courts have generally sided with prison officials, as long as they can prove the ban has a legitimate goal other than to simply suppress material that some people might find objectionable — such as maintaining safety in the prisons, or keeping the material out of the hands of sex offenders.
"The courts don't require the prison officials to look for other ways of achieving those goals without infringing on First Amendment rights, to the extent that they would for government outside the prison," he said. "Based on the press release and the notice to the prisoners, it looks as though it's in the general area of regulations that have been upheld in the past."
But the state's total ban on sexually explicit material appears to go beyond bans that the Supreme Court has upheld in the past, he said.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut said is not representing any of the inmates and doesn't advocate for pornography in prisons, but is concerned that the ban could be enforced in an arbitrary and overly broad manner.
"Similar regulations have been used to censor an image of the Sistine Chapel, newspapers and magazines with lingerie ads and the novel 'Ulysses,'" Andrew Schneider, executive director of the ACLU of Connecticut, said in a statement.
Garnett said the department is confident the ban will survive any legal challenge. The ban doesn't include material that could be considered literary, educational, artistic or scientific, he said. Decisions on whether a picture meets those exceptions will be handled on a case-by-case basis.
"It's, to put it mildly, not a difficult decision when it comes to most of this material," he said.
Inmates were given a year to dispose of any pornography they might have, which will allow any current magazine subscriptions to run their course, he said. The total ban will take effect in July 2012.
After that, material considered to be pornography will be taken as contraband and inmates found with it could face such punishments as a loss of commissary privileges, loss of phone or the loss of visits.
The ban has the support of the union that represents prison guards. Lisamarie Fontano, president of Local 387 of the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees, said she has been pushing for such a ban for several years, and has received complaints from female employees who have been sexually harassed by inmates using pornography.
"It's a betterment to all to have it gone," she said. "Some inmates don't want it, because their own sexual and mental issues were being forced onto them, even though it shouldn't be there in the first place."
Prisoners also use pornography as currency in prison, trading the pictures for other things of value, she said.
Garnett said Commissioner Leo Arnone decided on a total ban after studying what was being done in other states.
Policies vary widely. Many states, including Connecticut, tried to ban only material deemed deviant. Under current state regulations, inmates can have sexually explicit material as long as it does not depict children, bestiality, sadomasochism or the use of force.
"There was a never-ending problem with definitions of what you were trying to ban and keeping up with what was out there," Garnett said.