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Keeping out the Jones'

By Dan Cassino
Arizona Daily Wildcat,
March 21, 2000
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Johnathon Muro is probably rather confused right now. Last year, he was put into a Maricopa county prison while awaiting fraud charges, and while there, he asked the prison to forward his subscription to "Playboy" to his cell. The prison refused, took part in the favorite inmate pastime: he sued the jail. Then, something unexpected happened. Rather than be quickly settled, the case went on and on until it reached the Supreme Court. By the time the court made a ruling yesterday he had been convicted of fraud, and the court had ruled that he couldn't have "Playboy" in prison. Even if Maricopa County's definition of "sexually explicit material" is overly broad, it is more of a boon to the system than a bane.

None of this is the real reason that inmates shouldn't have magazines featuring frontal nudity. Inmates shouldn't have "Playboy" and other magazines featuring nudity because they are inmates. Once one of these people commits a felony, they no longer have all of their civil rights, not even their constitutional rights. They don't have the right to vote. They don't have the right to bear arms. If they can lose these rights, it is not absurd that they should also lose some civil rights while in prison.

Certainly, this case deals with the First Amendment, and we need to step very carefully around the most precious of our freedoms. It would be wrong for Maricopa County to decide to remove the magazines entirely out of spite. Sure, this would be entirely in character for Joe "toughest redneck sheriff in the country" Arpaio, but what makes Joe happy shouldn't be the guiding factor in policy decisions.

It would be wrong to enact the ban without good reason; but in this case, the county has outlined legitimate penalogical reasons for the ban. Apparently, the presence of sexually explicit material causes fights. This makes sense. In a closed environment, those inmates who don't have the material are going to want it. In a brutal closed environment, they are going to beat up the guy next to them to get it. Moreover, and more seriously to many in our society, the presence of the sexually explicit material leads to harassment of female employees. No one minds too much if one inmate beats up another; but if they start to harm the employees, that is, the people who aren't convicts, there should be measures taken to stop them.

To be fair, Mauro's lawyers did present some valid arguments. Inmates might be denied access to things that they should be able to get ahold of, like scientific and medical journals that happen to feature nudity. If someone in a Maricopa County prison is reading "Nature," they might be denied the opportunity to expand their minds. We don't want to punish the really good people in prison, certainly. However, this argument pretty much fell apart when it was pointed out in court that the ban has never affected this sort of magazine. To put it succinctly, the inmates aren't reading scientific and medical journals. In general, the people that read journals aren't the people that wind up in prison. Potentially, it could be a problem. But it isn't.

Much of Mauro's suit was based on the rather broad definition of sexually explicit material used by the county. But only a broad definition of sexually explicit material can ever work. There is no way to define "sexually explicit material" that does not potentially include material that was not supposed to be included. No one is arguing that all pictures featuring frontal nudity are pornographic, or even inappropriate in a prison environment. If a convict wants to have "The Birth of Venus" on his wall, he should probably be allowed to. Under the rule, he won't be able to. That's too bad, but he's one of the very few people that wind up being harmed by the plan.

There has never been a useful definition of pornography. Still, the "I know it when I see it" mentality reigns, and for good reason. Any process that would allow legitimate nudity, but keep out sexually explicit material would have to be subjective, decided by humans, and thus be open to corruption and second-guessing. It would cause more problems than it would solve. Even if the definition used by the county is a bit broad, there is no better way to do it.

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