Does a prison inmate forfeit his First Amendment rights? Yes, to an extent. But as U.S. Magistrate Lincoln Almond patiently explained last September, an inmate who criticizes a prison policy that is applicable to other inmates and who provides them with relevant information — unlike a “personal matter of purely individual interest” — may indeed be engaging in protected speech.

Almond was aiming his words at the Rhode Island Department of Corrections (DOC), whose director, Ashbel T. “A.T.” Wall II, was fighting a lawsuit brought by Jason Cook, an inmate at the Adult Correctional Institute in Cranston. Cook claimed that after he complained to The Providence Journal in 2007 about a new policy that restricted reading materials an inmate could receive (which itself raised First Amendment issues and was later rescinded), prison authorities retaliated by taking away his kitchen job, trashing his cell, holding him in segregation, and subjecting him to strip-searches. The resolution of Cook’s lawsuit is still pending.

In defending itself against Cook’s lawsuit, the DOC argued, among other things, that Cook had no First Amendment right to speak to the Journal, thus prompting Almond’s finding. The DOC appealed. In February, U.S. District Judge William Smith upheld most of Almond’s recommendations, including his finding that Cook did indeed enjoy some First Amendment protections.

“The DOC’s position that inmates could be disciplined simply for bringing prison conditions and policies to the public’s attention was extremely troubling,” said Steven Brown, executive director of the Rhode Island American Civil Liberties Union.

Convicted criminals, understandably, give up many of their rights when they are sentenced to prison. But it doesn’t and shouldn’t put them beyond the protection of the Constitution. A.T. Wall may not like it — but at least now he presumably understands it.