If the case of Jeffrey Libby is any indication, the rules on prisoner communication now being enforced by the Maine Department of Corrections are as baffling as they are wrongheaded.

Libby, an inmate at the Maine State Prison serving a 60-year sentence for murder, has been told by prison authorities to “cease and desist” submitting opinion pieces to newspapers, as he has for more than a decade.

That makes Libby the most high-profile target of the department’s restrictive policies prohibiting, among other communicative activities, publishing certain writings in newspapers.

Of course, prisons are allowed to impose restrictions on the free speech of inmates in order to, for instance, maintain security, or protect victims from harassment.

But those restrictions have to be weighed against prisoners’ rights under the First Amendment, and in Libby’s case there is no reason to believe that the occasional opinion column poses enough of a security risk to warrant infringing on his free speech.

And if the policies are being applied in the same way to other prisoners, there is a real risk that the department is limiting the ability of inmates to speak out on important aspects of prison life, and cutting them off in some respects from the world they will have to rejoin upon release.

That would be reason enough to scuttle the policy. Inmates have a particular perspective on the correctional system, and their input is critical to operating prisons in a way that promotes rehabilitation and reduces recidivism, and to bringing attention to abuses of power.

There is also plenty of evidence to suggest that inmates who maintain relationships with people outside of prison who are positive influences are less likely to commit another crime.

Moreover, there are indications that the policy is a violation of inmates’ constitutional rights, and a confounding one at that.

The state policy mirrors an old federal corrections rule that said inmates could not have items published “under a byline.”

The policy was discontinued at the federal level after it was struck down in a 2007 court ruling, one that built on prior decisions that affirmed prisoners’ rights to correspond with the media and to write about their experiences while in prison.

Worse, Libby was told by prison wardens that while he could not write any more op-ed columns published under a byline, he could write letters to the editor.

However, the only substantive difference between the writings is the style in which they are published, and that is solely up to the newspaper itself, not the inmate.

If the department itself is confused on the target of its own policies, imagine how the inmates feel.

Indeed, unsure of what he can and can’t write, Libby has stopped altogether out of fear that he will be punished.

Faced with that dilemma, other inmates are sure to make the same conclusions, and Maine prisons will be worse off for it.

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