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Inmates Sue to Regain Access to Pornography in State Prison System

DES MOINES, Iowa -- A new law implemented in November eliminates so-called “reading rooms” and an inmate's access to check out pornography at state correctional facilities.  It also outlaws the possession of explicit material wholesale, even if it was privately acquired. Now inmates are suing to get that access back.

Over 50 inmates cosigned the lawsuit. A metro lawyer says the class action complaint, written by the inmates at the Fort Dodge Correctional Facility, is difficult to read.

“The complaint itself doesn't make a whole lot of sense at all. It's full of sort of half sentences, half paragraphs, definitions that don’t make any sense” said Attorney Nick Sarcone.

In order for the complaint to be taken seriously, Sarcone says the inmates need to clearly allege the harm the new policy has caused and laws it violates.

“I think it'll get tossed if they don’t figure out a way to reformulate their complaint” he said.

But now, Sarcone says, we get to a gray area.

“There have been cases in the past where prison inmates have filed suit claiming a violation of their first amendment rights to access items like pornography. A lot of people believe that if you commit a crime you lose all of your rights that are guaranteed by the constitution; that's just not correct” said Sarcone.

Sacrone says they could angle that the policy violates their freedom of expression, which does still exist in prison to a lesser degree.

“It will then fall to the state to present to the court some rational reasons why they passed the law” he said.

A spokesman for the Department of Corrections released a statement on their reasoning which reads:

There were several reasons that the change in legislation was sought by the department. The department tries to be good stewards of the taxpayer's dollars, and by our having to dedicate significant amounts of staff resources to the screening, maintaining, and supervising the use of this material, we were sacrificing the time that staff could have been spent providing security or rehabilitative programming. We also have a significantly larger portion of incarcerated people that are classified as sex offenders than in the past. Keeping the material separate from those that should not have access becomes a challenge when it's allowed in the institution. Additionally, we want our institutional climate to be rehabilitative where those incarcerated are focused on their education, job skills, developing pro-social behaviors, and planning for their success upon reentry into the community. 

However, at least one state lawmaker says the inmates might have a point. Democratic Senator Rich Taylor spent 27 years working in the prison system. He voted against the bill when it came up, saying inmates had to have a way to relieve their sexual needs.

“Without the availability of the pornography that leaves them very little other options, and I don’t remember any judge ever sentencing anyone to go to prison to get raped; and believe me it happens” said Taylor.

According to the Department of Corrections there were 34 reported allegations of sexual assault in Iowa’s prison system in 2017.

In addition to being allowed to possess pornography, if they win, the prisoners want $25,000 dollars each deposited into their accounts.

Senator Taylor does not agree with that.

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