Government

58 inmates suing state over porn ban in Iowa prisons

Judge says lawsuit improperly filed, amendment needed

(File photo) The Iowa State Capitol building in Des Moines, photographed on Tuesday, June 10, 2014. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
(File photo) The Iowa State Capitol building in Des Moines, photographed on Tuesday, June 10, 2014. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

DES MOINES — About 58 inmates are attempting to sue the state of Iowa over the recent ban of pornography in prisons, claiming it violates their constitutional rights.

Inmates at Fort Dodge Correctional Facility are upset about the new law, which went in effect Nov. 14 at all nine state prisons and shut down the designated “pornography reading rooms.” The men filed a class action suit in October in U.S. District Court, but a judge told them Nov. 1 that they would have to file amended and substituted complaints on the proper forms, and that each plaintiff must pay a filing fee or file an application to proceed as an indigent person by Friday.

U.S. District Senior Judge Robert Pratt also said two signatures on the lawsuit are illegible and may not be included.

So the lawsuit, at this time, hasn’t been accepted by the court.

The inmates’ lawsuit, which is confusing and difficult to understand, claims the legislation was passed under the guise of “morality” and was brought by a “Government contrived of Nazis or tyrants.”

“It is our contention to stop this tyranny, arising from a group of religious tyrants/slaves, who hide behind the mantle of righteousness, and law, and have no regard for the Declaration of Independence and/or United States Constitution as they stand.”

The lawsuit also suggests that if women correctional officers can’t handle an environment that allows photos of female nudity and related images, “they should find employment elsewhere.” The plaintiffs ask what’s next — outlawing photos or images of models wearing fashion, swimsuits or lingerie?

The lead plaintiff of the lawsuit, 70-year-old Allen Curtis Miles, was convicted of first-degree murder in Polk County District Court for the fatal stabbing of Cheryl Kleinschrodt in March 1982.

The reading rooms, which were supervised by prison staff, allowed prisoners who were not convicted of sexual or sexual-related offenses to look at sexually explicit materials, according to the Iowa Department of Corrections. Inmates would receive these materials in the mail but officials would store them until an inmate requested to view them and be taken to a reading room. Once the inmate was done, the materials would go back to storage.

The inmates who received less explicit materials, like nude photos or a Playboy magazine, would be allowed to keep those in their cells, Iowa Department of Corrections spokesman Cord Overton said Thursday.

But the new law also bans inmates from having those in their cells.

The reading rooms were set up in response to a federal court ruling in the 1980s that found Iowa’s prison rules dealing with sexually explicit materials were unconstitutional.

During the legislative session when the bill was proposed, Iowa prisons legal counsel Michael Savala said the department modeled the new legislation after a Federal Bureau of Prisons policy and state officials believe it will stand up to court challenges.

Overton said he couldn’t estimate how much the reading rooms were used because that information wasn’t tracked. Staff members who would supervise the rooms may have been supervising other rooms at the same time, so it makes it impossible to provide an estimation, he said.

“When we discussed this issue with lawmakers, the broad point was that any staff time spent supervising these types of activities was staff time that could be spent more productively,” Overton said.

Time spent screening, sorting and supervising the use of these materials could be better spent focusing on security and rehabilitation, Overton said.

Overton pointed out that the prison population has grown significantly since the 1980s and ’90s, especially the sexual offenders, who have always been prohibited from having these materials. There are more than 1,000 sex offenders in an overall population of 8,594 inmates, as of Thursday.

Notice of the ban went out to inmates in July so they had time to cancel subscriptions or let family and friends know that nude and sexually explicit material would not be allowed on or after Nov. 14, Overton said.

Overton said department leadership advised inmates and staff that if pornography was found during the course of a routine search it could lead to discipline. But there haven’t been any real issues so far, he said.

Judge Pratt, in his response to the inmates’ lawsuit filing, suggested the plaintiffs file separate complaints because prisoner complaints, he said, present “unique circumstances not present in other civil actions and a multitude of problems may arise.” He pointed out several concerns if a single suit is brought by more than one inmate, including that the prison population is transient and lawyers have limited ability to meet with plaintiffs to discuss strategy or draft documents. Pratt said it’s also likely that one inmate may take control of lawsuit and act on behalf of others without legal authority or permission from others.

Pratt warns the inmates if they fail to comply with his order, it could result in the dismissal of the case.

The inmates hadn’t filed any amended or substituted complaints as of Thursday morning.

l Comments: (319) 398-8318; trish.mehaffey@thegazette.com

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