A recent push by state prison officials to crack down on the sexual content of inmates' mail has greatly expanded the range of books and magazines intercepted by prison censors, including such staid fare as Rolling Stone and Men's Health. The move has also prompted complaints from inmates' loved ones that even the most innocuous references to sex in personal letters are being censored.
The Colorado Department of Corrections has had a ban on hardcore porn -- anything visually more explicit than Playboy or Penthouse -- in place for years. But concerns about female staff being exposed to a hostile work environment or sexual harassment evidently prompted a major revision of administrative regulation 300-26, which dictates what publications inmates can receive.
The new policy goes much further, prohibiting not only sexually explicit photographs but any nudity or descriptions of intercourse, oral sex, masturbation, bestiality, necrophilia, S&M or "discharge of bodily fluids" -- a ban that would seem to encompass everything from soft-core "laddie" mags like Maxim to the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue to a drawing of the Venus de Milo to James Joyce's Ulysses to a Depends ad.
Since the new rule went into effect in June, publication review committees at various prisons have rejected a staggering array of incoming materials. Laurell K. Hamilton's bestselling novels about vampire hunter Anita Blake have run afoul of the censors. So has a not-so-sexy article in Men's Health about skin. Muscle and Fitness turned out to be unfit, or maybe too fit. Even an issue of Reason was found to be unreasonable because the cover illustrated an article about entitlement programs with a cartoon of an elderly woman in a wheelchair pointing a gun at a young worker. (This last one wasn't too sexy, though; it was just politically incorrect enough to be labeled as "promotes violence, generational.")
Inmate families and supporters say the worst part, though, is that the ban also applies to any references to sex in personal letters, whether incoming or outgoing. Diane Martin of Golden says she's had letters to her inmate boyfriend rejected for sexual content for statements no more explicit than "I want to kiss you."
"Our letters are the only form of intimate contact that we have," Martin says. "He can't write anything personal to me any more, and I think that's going a bit far."
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Since the new rule doesn't allow for "grandfathered" porn, prisoners are expected to surrender any ragged issues of Playboy or Maxim they may have squirreled away under the old policy. Although the regulation spells out a laborious appeal process, the decision to ban a publication can also be designated as unappealable.
Complaints have piled up at the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado, which has successfully sued the DOC before over its publication policies (including its frequent censorship of Westword). "We have spoken to DOC officials," says ACLU legal director Mark Silverstein, "and they acknowledge that the new regulation has problems. We have urged them to make substantial changes."
As of this writing, DOC officials have not responded to a query about the new policy.
More from our Prison Life archive: "Orgasms, tattoos: Women's prison abuzz over electric shavers."