Last week, ThinkProgress published an investigation into inmates’ claims of abuse in a West Virginia jail during the state’s recent water crisis. But very few have been able to read the story they were quoted in — because the jail outlaws prisoners from receiving any printed articles or news clippings.
“We don’t take anything that’s computer generated because people can send drugs through the ink,” said a staff member at South Central Regional Jail in Charleston, West Virginia. “If you type the letter up, they’ll give it to you [but] anything else that’s computer-generated, no.”
Jail staff couldn’t explain the difference between a printed, typed letter and an article printed from the internet. Lawrence Messina, communications director at West Virginia Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety, said in an email to ThinkProgress that all West Virginia jails’ policy is that “polaroid pictures, computer generated pictures and computer generated articles are not permitted.”
Prisoners can receive books and magazines, but those have to come directly from the publisher.
Editor of Prison Legal News Paul Wright has been involved in several lawsuits challenging prisons’ expansive mail restrictions. “We’ve been fighting policies for last three or four years, and we’re doing fairly well with it,” he said. Friday, Prison Legal News won an injunction against Ventura County, California’s practice of blocking inmates from receiving anything but post cards. “It’s ridiculous. We stand here on the beginning of the 21st century defending a 15th century means of communication, but that’s basically where were at.”
When asked about West Virginia’s policy, Wright said, “It sounds pretty outrageous, definitely outside the norm and probably unconstitutional.”
Courts generally allow corrections officials a lot of discretion to decide which policies are necessary to secure the prison’s safety, though some judges have ruled against wide restrictions on mail and news. A similar policy in California was struck down as unconstitutional in 2004. Several state prisons had outlawed all “internet mail” saying “it would jeopardize the safety and security of the institution.” But the state court of appeals found that “prohibiting all internet-generated mail is an arbitrary way to achieve a reduction in mail volume,” and that it violated inmates’ first amendment rights.
Many correctional facilities have reported an increase in drugs like suboxone, an addiction treatment drug, being smuggled into prisons through the mail. Some have found the drug in the wax of crayons or underneath stamps.
Criminal justice professor and former police officer Tod Burke of Radford University, who has studied contraband in prisons, says drugs have and could “absolutely” be sent in through the ink of printed materials, but says there wouldn’t be any difference in risk between a printed letter and an article.
“What prisons and jails don’t like is information that’s coming in from the outside in,” Burke said. “They can place whatever restrictions they wish on there in the name of security.”
ThinkProgress’s investigation last week detailed how, after a massive chemical spill compromised the jail’s water supply, inmates claim they were given as little as 16 oz. of clean water a day. Many reported drinking contaminated water and suffering serious health problems afterwards. The jail returned to using tap water eight days after the spill, which inmates said still had a strong chemical taste. Jail officials deny they gave inmates an insufficient amount of water, and say they thoroughly flushed the water system before letting inmates drink tap water.
Prisoner advocates have been trying to find ways to let inmates read (or hear) the article. Volunteers from Stories from South Central, a group organizing on South Central inmates’ behalf, have been mailing handwritten transcripts of the story or reading it to prisoners over the phone. “It takes about two phone calls,” said volunteer Jonathan Sidney.
Contact with inmates has been difficult, Sidney said. Organizers have mailed hand-written petitions, but say many prisoners report not receiving them. They say jail officials also blocked them from two previously scheduled visits.
“Some letters were held for security reasons. Once investigated, the letters were sent to the inmates,” Messina said in an email. “No inmate has been denied the right to visit anyone who has properly scheduled a visit. However, the inmate has the right to refuse any visit. It has been said that inmates are becoming upset, because some of these groups are taking away their visits with their families because they are getting through first on the visitation line.”
Inmate Jamaa Johnson wrote in a letter to organizers, “I’m furious that the jail denied my visit. I waited all Sunday for the visit. I will fill a complaint out but I’m sure it will find its way to a trash can.”