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Turner, Thornburgh, and an Inmate’s Right to Read: The Chelsea Manning Case and Possible Solutions to BOP Regulation Language

Turner, Thornburgh, and an Inmate’s Right to Read: The Chelsea Manning Case and Possible Solutions to BOP Regulation Language

Alexander Dean 

In 2013, the United States Army Military District of Washington convicted army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning of violating provisions of the federal Espionage Act[1] by releasing highly-sensitive military and diplomatic documents to WikiLeaks.[2] Currently incarcerated in a maximum-security prison, Manning faces solitary confinement for keeping prohibited publications in her cell without filing a book request.[3] The Manning case represents a recent concern lodged at both the United States Disciplinary Barracks (USDB) rules and the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) regulations they derive from: the ambiguity of how prison administrators may accept or deny book requests on a case-by-case basis.

The current BOP framework under 28 C.F.R. § 540.71(b) allows wardens to deny a request if it is “determined detrimental to the security, good order, or discipline of the institution or if it might facilitate criminal activity.”[4] The United States Supreme Court preserves a doctrine of deference toward incoming publications as a First Amendment issue.[5] Since 1977, the Court has maintained that prison administrators are in the best position to assess the reasonability of book requests.[6] Institutional rules are flexible and depend on the individual prisoner, sentence, or behavior. Some correctional facilities keep relaxed systems meeting the minimum requirements of § 540.71, while others “refuse to allow any books whose content includes anything legal, medical or contains violence.”[7] By affording prison officials the freedom to decide which materials to ban from federal inmates, inconsistencies result in the interpretation of § 540.71 throughout the federal prison system. This lack of judicial guidance can have a significant effect on the level of First Amendment protection afforded from institution to institution.

This Note sheds light on the constitutional and enforcement implications of § 540.71 on book requests for federal inmates, and proposes an alternative to these regulations based on a federally recognized banned publication list extendable to the USDB Military Correctional Complex (MCC) Regulations. The Note will examine the deference given to prison officials—the “hands-off” approach—and the historical trend toward this doctrine. Education and open access to information in the prison system can encourage self-improvement and reduce recidivism. A guided, analytical approach to prison publication requests would eliminate the pressure to determine what constitutes objectionable material by equipping prison administrators with the sense of direction necessary to decide delicate constitutional questions, thus creating a level playing field between prison policies.

Questions and inquiries regarding this Note may be forwarded to the author at LawReview@vermontlaw.edu.


[1] Espionage Act of 1917, 40 Stat. 217 (1917) (codified as amended at 18 U.S.C. §§ 792–99 (2012) (“An Act to punish acts of interference with the foreign relations, and the foreign commerce of the United States, to punish espionage, and better to enforce the criminal laws of the United States . . . ”).

[2] Julie Tate, Bradley Manning Sentenced to 35 Years in WikiLeaks Case, Wash. Post (Aug. 21, 2013), http://wapo.st/19IK4tA.

[3] Morina Koren, The Book that Prison Officials Don’t Want Chelsea Manning to Read, Atlantic (Aug. 19, 2015), http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2015/08/chelsea-manning-books-reading-prison/401801.

[4] 28 C.F.R. § 540.71(b) (2012).

[5] Turner v. Safley, 482 U.S. 78, 89 (1987); Thornburgh v. Abbott, 490 U.S. 401, 408 (1989).

[6] See Jones v. North Carolina Prisoners’ Labor Union, Inc., 433 U.S. 119, 136 (1977) (emphasizing the precedent of “deference federal courts should pay to the informed discretion of prison officials”).

[7] Andrew Losowsky, Prison Books Ban: The Censorship Scandal Inside America’s Jails, Huffington Post (Oct. 3, 2011), http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/10/02/prison-books-ban_n_991494.html.

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