Let’s End Collective Punishment in U.S. Prisons

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Also published in the April 2021 edition of Prison Legal News.

By Sandy Rozek . . . As long ago as 1991 when Rodney King was beaten by four police officers in California, public sentiment erupted in a general condemnation of law enforcement. In New York in 2014, the death of Eric Garner, placed in a chokehold and held on the ground for seven minutes by the arresting officers, brought forth the same condemnation, and so did the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody in Maryland in 2015.

And the 2020 killing of George Floyd in Minnesota, eerily similar to that of Garner, galvanized hundreds of thousands of citizens from coast to coast protesting police violence in general and screaming condemnation against all law enforcement, resulting in the mis-used and misunderstood “defund the police” movement.

In every case, spokespersons for law enforcement called for calm and reason and pleaded that the condemnation of peace officers in general stop and that the cries for justice be focused solely on the individual or individuals responsible for the acts of violence.

A very reasonable request.

NARSOL agrees that only those law enforcement officers responsible for misdeeds and criminal conduct should be held accountable for such acts and that targeting identified groups due to the actions of some within the group is wrong. In fact, “Collective punishments are prohibited under international humanitarian law in all circumstances.”

However, the pleas of law enforcement for individual responsibility as opposed to group punishment are at odds with many of the decisions and edicts of prison administers across the United States. A recent situation that exemplifies this is the allowance – or lack of it — of Christmas and other holiday cards to those incarcerated in our nation’s prison systems as well as inmate mail in general.

Cards, colored ink, stamps, and some envelopes have been identified as one means by which drugs are sent into prisons to inmates, and many states have varying degrees of bans on these being allowed into their institutions.

A fairly new trend prisons are adopting is the practice of photocopying all allowed mail, including the fronts of the sending envelopes, and then placing each photocopied item into a reusable envelope to be given to the inmates. The policy as developed in Michigan is similar to that used in Arkansas and Virginia and in the federal system, the U.S. Bureau of Prisons.

Pennsylvania is using the same system but with a twist. Due to a contract with Smart Communications that costs the state $376,000 a month or nearly $16 million over three years, all acceptable inmate mail is sent to Florida where it is photocopied at a central location, placed in envelopes addressed to the Pennsylvania incarcerated recipients, and then mailed back to them.

Perhaps due to the exorbitant expense, the Pennsylvania Dept. of Corrections made an attempt to determine if they were getting their money’s worth. In August 2018, they found that 0.7 percent of incoming prisoner mail was drug-tainted. After implementing the new, very expensive program, as of July 2019, the rate had dropped to 0.6 percent. The state spends millions to decrease drug flow into the prison by 0.1 percent – that is one-tenth of one percent, and because of that miniscule percentage of inmates who are sent tainted mail, the entire Pennsylvania prison population is denied the actual personal letters, homemade cards, and pictures that keep hope alive while incarcerated.

It is impossible to know if the Pennsylvania percentages are typical of other states, but they are in line with at least one other. Texas is another state that places severe restrictions on what may be received by inmates, and, according to the Marshall Project, “Of the more than 7.5 million pieces of mail Texas prisoners received in 2019, the state says that 3,500 letters per month—just over half of 1 percent—were flagged for a suspicious substance.”

Texas Voices, a NARSOL affiliated advocacy organization, has for years mailed Christmas cards to inmates. They now are required to photocopy the card in black and white onto plain white paper and mail those instead. *

A few states have disallowed Christmas and all greeting cards altogether. Among them are New Mexico, Utah, and Montana. In an interesting side note, North Carolina, while not having a statewide total ban on cards, maintains an extensive, nineteen-page listing of publications totally banned from entering its penal institutions. Among them are issues of Criminal Legal News, Field and Stream, Vogue, New York Magazine, Scientific American, and The Natural, a classic novel that is often described as the best book ever written about baseball.

Whether receiving photocopies — often of poor quality — of mail; having restrictions put on types and colors of cards and letters; or having cards totally banned, and whether the percentage of drugs coming into penal institutions via postal mail is 0.5 percent, 5 percent, or 25 percent, the result is the same: An entire class / group of people are being punished for the bad or suspicious behavior of members within that class or group.

Members of law enforcement ask that we not blame, censure, or wreak consequences upon them as a group when some of them exhibit unlawful behavior. The more than two million incarcerated individuals in America ask the same consideration from those who make prison policies. Those inmates who seek to receive contraband or drugs can be prosecuted for criminal behavior or have internal sanctions imposed for non-criminal behavior. NARSOL calls on prisons to treat each instance based on the individual circumstances and cease imposing collective punishment on the entire prison population.

* After this article, Texas prisons modified their policy to again allow actual greeting cards at certain times of the year.

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