By Katie Hoban
Freedom of Speech is a right guaranteed by the Constitution that many citizens use on a daily basis. It is a principle in our society, supporting an individual’s articulation of opinion and ideas in the absence of censorship or legal ramification.
The event “Inside Voices: The Free Speech Rights of Incarcerated Americans”, hosted by Georgetown University Prison and Justice Initiative, addressed the issue of free speech within prison systems. The opening remarks were made by Marc Howard, a Professor of Government and Law at Georgetown University. As a leading supporter of criminal justice and prison reform, Howard addressed that citizens who are imprisoned do not have the same freedom of speech as those who are not incarcerated.
“The right to express one’s opinion, verbal or written, is revoked in a majority of public and private prisons across the United States” ranging from mail, books and internet access, to how a prisoner’s name is released and how their picture is used states Amy Fettig, Deputy Director for the ACLU’s National Prison Project. She elaborated that when these issues are brought up to prison officials, the question of security is brought up not just for the prisoners, but for the outside world as well.
Robert L. Green, director of Montgomery County Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, also spoke at the event. “How do we balance free speech rights with security needs?”said Green “It is important to take titles with great seriousness.”
Green further stated that the Department of Corrections has to censor specific content for the safety of prisoners and guards, the main censored material being books. Panelist Bill Keller, editor-in-chief of “The Marshall Project”, informed the audience that even the simplest books have to screened before coming into the prison. Books that would seem unharmful, such as the Illustrated Bible Story, is excluded because “the content contains murder, sexual assault, and decapitation” according to Keller. This thus restricts prisoners from using their first amendment right.
Although prison officials see possible books as dangerous, Fettig says that “the reasons [the corrections department] comes up with is total B.S.” due to the blanket censorship on books. According to Fettig, books that are banned are the ones that help others, especially the empowerment of African American prisoners.
An example of ill treatment by the prison system would be former inmate and panelist Tyrone Walker, a student in the Goutcher Degree program who wanted to put up a flyer about improving the prison community he found in his prison library. The following day he was put in solitary confinement for “inciting a riot” and was later relocated to a different facility, being stripped of earning his degree in the Goutcher Degree program. He was later asked, “Who do you think you are [going to] change?” while being moved.
Panelist of the event also addressed the restrictions to the internet and advancing technology. The lack of internet access has had a huge impact in the prison community.
“Access is the key to free speech,” says Fettig, “Bad things that happen in our jail are a result of our democracy”.
The lack of access to internet has devastating effects on the 2.3 million inmates in the United States, and no internet means no easy homecoming once released, making it harder to assimilate back into society according to Fettig.
Although facilities are making progress for prisoners to have access to the internet, books, and magazines, it is seen as imperative that prisons make progress to allow inmates to practice their first Amendment right.