Prisoners need access to lawyers, family, books
Infringing on the rights of prisoners by denying such access is not progress.
When employees handling mail in Pennsylvania state prisons began getting sick last summer, officials traced the problem to drug smuggling.
Pages of letters, books and greeting cards had been soaked with contraband, particularly synthetic marijuana.
It was clear something had to be done. Inmate mail was soon being scanned by a company in Florida, then transmitted to printers in prisons, then copied there.
Yet that created a secondary set of problems.
The company has had some trouble keeping up with the flow, and there’s a cost to taxpayers — from $4 million to $15 million a year, depending on whose estimate you use.
Still, the paramount concern is the health of prison staffers.
The rerouting system succeeded in reducing the flow of drugs, according to John Wetzel, secretary of the state Department of Corrections.
The number of mysterious illnesses dropped. Drug overdoses among prisoners fell. The incidence of visitors caught with drugs went up. In that sense, the program was working.
The copying program depersonalizes things such as photos, kids’ drawings, handwritten notes and birthday cards — connections to home and family important to those on the inside.
Sometimes those items were illegible. Sometimes they never showed up.
Initially, in September, prison officials also ended book donation programs and the shipping of mail-order books and publications to inmates.
That prohibition was relaxed after a public outcry.
Some delay in mail delivery is a justified trade-off — but it shouldn’t interfere with inmates’ constitutional rights, limited as those are during incarceration.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania has sued over the handling of legal mail, saying the new rules interfere with privileged communications between inmates and their lawyers.
In some cases, mail delays caused court dates to be missed, according to relatives of inmates who complained to Wetzel.
Correspondence between lawyers and inmates is held to a higher standard of confidentiality than ordinary mail.
Prisoners have a right to communicate with legal counsel without having to worry that someone is reading their mail or eavesdropping.
Under the new security measures, prison employees open correspondence from lawyers in the presence of an inmate and inspect it for contraband.
But instead of getting the letter, inmates get a photocopy; the prison retains the original for 45 days.
The ACLU says there’s no evidence that legal mail is being used for smuggling.
The more important point, though, is that institutional copying of a legal document compromises confidentiality.
Some defense attorneys say legal papers have been left out where they can be read by unauthorized persons, or been discarded.
Some worry that documents could be diverted to those with an opposing interest in a criminal case — perhaps the prison itself or staffers.
The security of prisons is the primary issue. No one’s arguing that.
The Founding Fathers saw fit to extend specific rights to those accused by the state. Part of that is an expectation of fairness and legal representation in the criminal justice system.
That shouldn’t be a matter of contention, either.
Beyond the issue of legal mail: Reading, writing and staying connected to family and friends is fundamental to helping prisoners serve their time.
Wetzel has been a leader in the corrections community in recognizing this.
There’s more officials can do. The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections is installing the types of body scanners used in airports to combat the flow of contraband.
After the ban on delivering books directly to prisoners went into effect, officials came up with alternatives, such as allowing book donation organizations to interact with inmates at a centralized screening center.
Family members and others were again allowed to have books shipped from dealers or publishers, going through the processing center. That’s progress. Infringing on the rights of prisoners — possibly snooping on the one privileged relationship to which they are entitled — is not. — The Easton ExpressTimes, The Associated Press