Do prisoners have a right to read what they want?

Colin Dayan in the Boston Review:

On June 29, 2006, in the case of Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, the U.S. Supreme Court granted habeas corpus protection to prisoners held by the American military at Guantánamo Bay. The court ruled that the military commissions created by the Bush administration to hear detainees’ cases violated the Geneva Conventions. It recognized that international law requires a “regularly constituted court affording all the judicial guarantees which are recognized as indispensable by civilized peoples,” and forbids treatment of prisoners that is “inhumane,” “humiliating,” “degrading.”

One day earlier, in Beard v. Banks, the court had ruled that prisoners in the highest-security unit of Pennsylvania’s State Correctional Institution in Pittsburgh do not have a First Amendment right to newspapers, magazines, and personal photographs.

The Hamdan decision was rightly celebrated by human-rights advocates, but the previous day’s decision received virtually no attention. The oversight is unfortunate. Domestic prison cases often portend future legal developments: past Supreme Court decisions about which punishments count as cruel and unusual-and which do not-were cited in the torture memos that prepared the ground for Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo. Although decisions about the rights of prisoners get little public attention, they have a powerful effect on the policies of penal institutions, both in the United States and in other countries that are either willing or unwilling recipients of our attention. In this light, Beard v. Banks demands our attention.