Supreme Court to Review a Pa. Prison Policy That Alito Backed in Dissent

By Charles Lane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 15, 2005

The Supreme Court announced yesterday that it will review a Pennsylvania inmate's claim that his First Amendment rights were violated by a prison policy that denies dangerous prisoners access to most reading material, television and radio.

Under the policy, about 40 prisoners considered most likely to attempt escape or harm others are confined to a special section of a state prison in Pittsburgh and permitted to read only religious and legal materials and paperback books from the prison library. They get only one visit with an immediate family member per month and may not keep photographs of wives, family members or friends.

The court's decision to hear the case is particularly intriguing because the three-judge federal appeals court that struck the policy down did so over the dissent of Judge Samuel A. Alito Jr., President Bush's nominee to replace Justice Sandra Day O'Connor on the Supreme Court.

Two judges on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit, based in Philadelphia, found that the prison policy was not justified by the state's interest in controlling inmates. Alito wrote that he would have upheld the policy because it was consistent with Supreme Court precedent, which permits restrictions on inmates' constitutional rights as long as they are justified by an overriding "penological" interest.

"On their face," Alito wrote, "these regulations are reasonably related to the legitimate penological goal of curbing prison misconduct" -- because prisoners would be deterred from misbehaving by the prospect of being sent to a place where they have to do without TV and magazines.

The case is Beard v. Banks , No. 04-1739. Oral arguments are expected in March, and a decision is expected by July.

Separately, the court said it would not hear a challenge to a Florida law that bars convicted felons from voting for life. The law currently bars from the polls about 600,000 people who have finished their prison sentences, parole or probation. Opponents of the law say it disproportionately disenfranchises blacks.

The lawsuit, Johnson v. Bush , No. 05-212, argued that Florida's law is a violation of the Voting Rights Act and the Constitution. Opponents say that it was originally enacted in 1868 as part of an effort to restrict black suffrage, and that it continues to result in the exclusion of blacks today. The state says the law, enacted anew in 1968, was not motivated by racial bias.

In Florida, 5.2 percent of residents are barred from voting because of felony convictions, but the rate is double that for blacks, according to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School, which represented the Florida plaintiffs.

Alabama, Kentucky and Virginia have similar laws.

In April, the Atlanta-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit voted 10 to 2 to uphold the Florida law.

The issue remains alive. Florida activists are attempting to put a proposal to change the law on the state ballot, and challenges to other states' laws that disenfranchise felons but are less strict are going forward in the federal appeals courts based in San Francisco and New York.

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