Earlier this month, an Iowa judge ordered a temporary injunction against the midwestern state for blocking prisoners from accessing non-sexually explicit depictions of nudity
The decision comes ahead of a lawsuit brought against the state legislature for implementing a 2018 rule that defunded so-called “pornography reading rooms.” The statute prevents corrections officials from distributing information or material that is “sexually explicit or features nudity.” (Iowa law defines nudity as “a pictorial depiction where genitalia or female breasts are exposed.”)
Critics allege that Iowa has overreached its enforcement of the law by actively banning anything featuring a naked body — art, literature, and even medical journals — from entering prisons.
Nathan Mundy is a lawyer for Michael Lindgren, a tattoo artist and inmate challenging the statute in federal court. Speaking to the Art Newspaper, Mundy claims that Iowa law prevents his client from accessing mainstream publications like National Geographic. He adds that his client is now not even allowed to draw his own nude figures while incarcerated.
The case before Iowa’s District Court involves a petition submitted by 12 inmates, who do not have lawyers, for a temporary restraining order on the law. According to the prisoners, the statute prevents “substantial amounts of constitutionally protected speech,” depriving them of “happiness and meaning (especially in the depraved environment of the penitentiary) through the arts.” They clarified during oral arguments that they were opposed to pornography and did not seek access to it.
Generally, prisons ban sexually explicit materials but make exceptions for items of artistic or informational merit. And despite its salacious name, a pornography reading room is simply a space within a corrections facility where convicts can view such materials. An inmate’s rights to such materials were upheld in a 1988 ruling by the late Chief US District Judge Harold Vietor, who considered Iowa’s rules against sexually explicit materials to be unconstitutionally vague and overbroad.
In the years since Judge Vietor’s ruling, Iowa politicians have tried to dismantle the program one way or another. But the ruling was upheld as recently as 1993 by the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, which argued that “the regulation is an acceptable way for prison officials to accommodate the inmates’ First Amendment rights while advancing their legitimate interest in prison security and inmate rehabilitation.”
The upcoming trial concerning the 2018 statute will likely face similar scrutiny. The defendants — Iowa, its state legislature, and its Department of Corrections — claim that the law prevents the distribution of pornography, which, they said, interferes with rehabilitation, harms psychologically unfit inmates, and could cause some to act out their sexual aggression toward staff or other prisoners.
But there is mounting evidence that art can have positive effects on the rehabilitation process. For example, research suggests that inmates have displayed positive behavioral changes and reduced recidivism after participating in arts education courses.
Controversy surrounding the Iowa statute may have less to do with art’s role in the prison system, and more to do with “a normalized trend where prison officials routinely censor materials that inmates receive,” said Alex Friedmann, an associate director of Human Rights Defense Center where he is managing editor of the nonprofit’s publication, Prison Legal News. In a phone interview with Hyperallergic, he explained, “At any given time, we have a dozen lawsuits pending nationwide on censorship.”
While censorship for what prisoners create is uncommon because it is difficult to enforce, corrections departments are increasingly limiting what inmates can receive from the outside world. “In many jurisdictions, prisoners can’t even get letters,” notes Friedmann, “only postcards.”
Pennsylvania has one of the harshest policies. Inmates in the state can’t receive any mail; it all goes off-site and returns to the recipient as a scan. Often, these images are undecipherable and are missing pages. Arizona also has strict policies banning certain publications and pieces of literature, including Batman: Eye of the Beholder and E=MC2: Simple Physics, according to a report by Prison Legal News.
What happens in Iowa could set a legal pathway for inmates to follow in other states, pushing culture into a larger confrontation with the penal system.