In this decision, the Supreme Court upheld, against a First Amendment challenge, restrictions imposed by the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (whose secretary was Jeffrey A. Beard) on inmates’ reading materials. The Court’s 6-2 ruling in Beard v. Banks, 548 U.S. ___ (2006), continued its trend of extending broad deference to prison officials in the face of constitutional challenges.

Inmate Ronald Banks filed a federal lawsuit in 2001, contending that the department’s policy of restricting prisoners in its long-term segregation unit from reading newspapers and magazines and viewing photographs violated their free expression rights. A federal district court granted summary judgment to prison officials. However, a divided three-judge panel of the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed, finding that the restrictive policy was unreasonable. Judge Samuel A. Alito Jr. dissented while on the 3rd Circuit panel, which explained why as Justice Alito he did not participate when the case came before the high court.

Deference to prison officials

On appeal, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the 3rd Circuit and ruled in favor of the prison officials. In his plurality opinion, Justice Stephen G. Breyer pointed out that the Court’s prior precedents — Turner v. Safley (1987) and Overton v. Bazzetta (2003) — require a broad degree of deference to prison officials in their difficult task of administering prisons. Breyer also emphasized a procedural point at the trial court level — that Banks’s counsel had never disputed prison officials’ statement of facts, but instead only filed his own motion for summary judgment. “Although summary judgment rules provided Banks with an opportunity to respond to the Secretary’s materials, he did not offer any fact-based or expert-based refutation in the manner the rules provide,” Breyer wrote.

Applying the reasonableness standard from Turner v. Safley, Breyer found that the prison’s policy of withholding reading privileges as a form of behavior modification was reasonable on its face. But Breyer noted that the restriction was “severe,” and he left room for an as-applied challenge to be filed in the future if the restrictions amounted to a “de facto ban.”

Justice Clarence Thomas, joined by Justice Antonin Scalia, wrote a concurring opinion in which he reiterated his view, articulated in Overton v. Bazzetta, that prison regulations can be challenged only under the Eighth Amendment. “Judicial scrutiny of prison regulations is an endeavor fraught with peril,” he observed.

Justice John Paul Stevens, joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, dissented. Stevens reasoned that the restrictive reading policies had a “highly questionable” connection to the state’s interests in rehabilitation. He wrote that the prison’s rules came “perilously close to a state-sponsored effort at mind control.”

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