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Roan and Groan

The lawsuit had charged that the DOC's criteria for screening books and periodicals was not only overly broad, it was subjective and unconstitutionally vague. As a result, prisoners had been denied publications as varied as biker magazines, David Mamet's play The Spanish Prisoner, Vibe and Laura Esquivel's novel Like Water for Chocolate. Some entertainment magazines were prohibited because the musicians and artists in them might be making "gang hand signals," Silverman says. "The new regulation is designed to end that category of censorship." And assorted issues of Westword were unjustifiably censored under an old DOC regulation that authorized an article's being banned if it encouraged "hatred or contempt of any persons."

But the Westword stories banned by the DOC weren't just articles focusing on gang and crime issues; they were also investigations into the state prison system itself -- including one 1997 article by Alan Prendergast describing how two prisoners had beaten a third to death in the state Supermax.

Language in the settlement agreement now affirms that prisoners "have a first amendment right to read materials that express a wide variety of religious, philosophical, political and social views, as well as material that may contain criticism of government policies or may be critical of governmental authority or department policy or practices," so long as those materials do not violate other standards, such as "actually advocating non-compliance," Silverstein suggests.

The settlement also redefines the criteria for censorship, mandates training for staff in those criteria, requires the DOC to notify publishers of any censorship decision, and gives publishers time to appeal the decision. So far, though, no censorship claims have been tested under the settlement agreement. "It will be a while before we know how it works," says Silverstein.

In the meantime, you can read some of the banned stories in our Crime and Punishment archive at www.westword.com. -- Patricia Calhoun

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