Virginia Prisons' Reading Policy Deemed Unconstitutional

September 3, 2010

A federal judge has declared unconstitutional a Virginia prison policy that denies inmates access to classic literature with sexually explicit passages but allows them to peruse Playboy magazine.

U.S. District Judge James C. Turk in Roanoke ruled Wednesday that there is no rational connection between the restrictions and the state's legitimate interests in rehabilitating inmates and maintaining safety and order in the prisons.

The ruling was a victory for Augusta Correctional Center inmate William R. Couch, who represented himself in a lawsuit challenging Virginia Department of Corrections Operating Policy 803.2 after he was denied access to the novels "Ulysses" by James Joyce and "Lady Chatterly's Lover" by D.H. Lawrence.

"The irrationality of O.P. 803.2 stems from the fact that it encompasses much of the world's finest literature, but does not extend to 'soft core' pornography such as Playboy magazine," Turk wrote in the opinion, which was first reported by The Roanoke Times.

The regulation forbids explicit descriptions of sexual acts, including "actual sexual intercourse" and sexual acts that violate state or federal law.

"But the number of highly regarded books which include a description of actual sexual intercourse is vast," Turk wrote. "Beyond 'Ulysses' and 'Lady Chatterly's Lover,' the Court could list dozens of the highly regarded works of literature which include an explicit description of a sexual act or intercourse."

The judge did just that in a footnote, listing such classics as "Brave New World" by Aldous Huxley, "Tropic of Cancer" by Henry Miller and "For Whom the Bell Tolls" by Ernest Hemingway.

"I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings" by Maya Angelou describes rape, and "Lolita" by Vladimir Nabokov addresses statutory rape - sex acts that violate the law and therefore could place those classics on the banned list, the judge said. Turk even cited Couch's assertion that the Old Testament of the Bible contains explicit descriptions of incest.

Prison officials argued that sexually explicit materials "are considered valuable currency and used in bartering" by inmates, and that the possession of such items can lead to theft and fights.

"Particularly with respect to 'Ulysses' it is impossible to even imagine prison inmates fighting for the chance to delve into the incredibly difficult to decipher novel, one metaphor-laden scene of which portrays exhibitionist behavior and masturbation," Turk wrote.

Department of Corrections spokesman Larry Traylor declined to comment on the ruling, and the state attorney general's office did not immediately respond to an inquiry about whether it will appeal the decision to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Turk said he would allow the department 60 days to draft a new, constitutionally permissible policy before an injunction takes effect.

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