A federal judge in Chicago has ruled that the blanket ban on newspapers in Cook County Jail violates the first amendment.
The ruling has come from Judge Matthew Kennelly. Judge Kennelly acknowledged that Cook County Sheriff, Tom Dart’s, concerns are legitimate. But he noted that a blanket ban with no exceptions violates inmates’ right to free speech.
Dart’s concerns include the fact that inmates can fashion newspapers into papier-mache weapons. Newspapers can also find use in starting and fueling fires. Also, inmates can come to know about the activities of rival gangs through news stories.
In the comprehensive 20-page ruling, Judge Kennelly noted that jails do permit books and magazines. However, the almost 31-year ban on newspapers is still there in Cook County Jail. Jail administrators have long argued about the threat newspapers pose in prison environment.
Responding to all the concerns of jail administrators, Judge Kennelly wrote “Permitting newspapers in libraries and day rooms, but not individual cells-would accommodate the right while completely addressing the jail’s concerns.” He also said that limiting the total amount of material entering the jail premises will take care of waste disposal concerns.
Jails can also decide to purchase only international or national newspapers. This would ensure that there is far less information about the local gangs’ activities or about the jail inmates.
The ruling came in the light of a lawsuit filed by a former inmate, Gregory Koger. Koger was serving a jail term in 2003 for videotaping remarks made by a speaker who had then “canceled a meeting with the group.”
Under the first amendment, jail inmates have a right to read newspapers and use NY Times crossword answers to solve newspaper puzzles. Judge Kennelly has also noted that federal prisons and prisons in the state of Illinois don’t have any such ban.
Jail administrators had argued that inmates have access to newspaper alternatives like TV. Judge Kennelly dismissed this argument. He pointed out that inmates’ consensus and prison guards decide which TV channel to watch.
Judge Kennelly termed the jail’s blanket ban as an “extreme response.” He said that it “extinguishes an inmate’s ability to exercise his First Amendment right to read newspapers.”