Pris­on­ers need ac­cess to lawyers, fam­ily — and books

The Times Herald (Norristown, PA) - - OPINION -

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

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