More Inmate Privileges Fall in Get-Tough Drive
California prison officials are moving to erase some of the last vestiges of the prisoners rights movement, laying plans to revoke privileges long cherished by inmates.
The California Department of Corrections is removing weights that many inmates pump to bulk up muscles. And in an even more fundamental step, the department proposes to take away many of the lawbooks that inmates use to challenge their confinement.
The extraordinary moves come as officials issue increasingly strident warnings about overcrowding in California’s 33 prisons, and as prisoners and their advocates say the tense atmosphere behind the walls is getting worse.
“We got into the position at one juncture of providing a rather comfortable lifestyle in prison,” said Sean Walsh, Gov. Pete Wilson’s spokesman. “We should not allow prisoners to ride roughshod over the prisons. They’re there to be punished, and hopefully rehabilitated. They’re not there to be entertained and catered to.”
With Wilson in his final year as governor, the effort to limit inmate privileges is accelerating. And the administration is homing in on some that have been as much a part of prison life as concrete and steel.
Only a month ago, officials began enforcing new grooming standards that require men’s hair to be closely cropped, a measure that prompted at least 100 inmates at Folsom Prison to stage a short-lived hunger strike on New Year’s Day.
“It’s all part of a comprehensive review of prison operations,” said Tom Maddock, head of the Youth and Adult Correctional Agency. “The core reasons are safety, security and taxpayer efficiency.”
There’s more to come later this year. Among other steps, Maddock said, prison officials plan random drug tests for inmates and will prohibit packages from being sent directly to inmates by family, friends and associates--another step aimed at reducing drug use. Outsiders wanting to send packages would purchase items from Department of Corrections-approved vendors, who would ship items to inmates.
A program is also afoot to require all inmates to wear prison-issue white jumpsuits, instead of the current garb of blue jeans and blue work shirts. Jumpsuits would make it harder for escapees to blend in on the streets, officials say.
Prisoners’ rights advocates, inmates and their family members long have criticized the Department of Corrections for what they consider its punitive approach. But lately, correctional officers, while applauding the approaching end of weightlifting, are raising their own questions about some of the changes.
“We’re going to drag them out of their drums [cells] and shave their heads?” asked Don Novey, president of the California Correctional Peace Officers Assn., the guards union. “The irony of it. You’re massively overcrowded. You’re understaffed. . . . And this stuff goes to the forefront. It’s stupid. But it resonates with the public. We get this perception that we’re tough with the pedophiles.”
Maddock scoffs at charges that the changes are so much public relations. “We’re doing this because we think it’s right. These are measures to help us [manage the prisons],” he said.
Lawyers representing prisoners and other advocates are trying to block the moves, and state Sen. John Vasconcellos (D-San Jose) plans to hold a hearing on what he calls the “profoundly silly” proposals. But many legislators support the changes, and the department has broad authority to invoke what it calls emergency powers to change its rules.
The steps come as Wilson renews his call for the Legislature to approve $1.4 billion in bonds to help finance four new prisons.
Officials say California’s prisons can house no more than 178,000 inmates. The prison population now exceeds 156,000, and grows by 10,000 inmates or more each year. Maddock predicts that without new prisons, by the year 2000 judges may intervene and force the state to free some inmates.
Matthew Jay, 30, serving 15 years to life at Solano State Prison for a second-degree murder conviction in Los Angeles, is one of thousands of prisoners whose home is a bunk in a prison gym. The overarching fact of prison life is the “strain of overcrowding,” he said in a telephone interview.
Lifting weights is one of the few pastimes that relieves frustration, he said; without them tensions will rise. But he’s more worried about the potential loss of lawbooks.
“If that access is taken away, we are no longer in a prison. We are in a war camp, like a prisoner of war,” Jay said. “When rights are violated, we’re left with no alternative but to react. We want to prevent that.”
Taken together, the steps hark back to the era before the prisoners rights movement of the 1960s, when inmates gained expanded privileges, and prison officials, especially in California, placed a far greater emphasis on rehabilitation.
California lawmakers gave civil libertarians one of their most far-reaching victories on behalf of prisoners by approving the so-called Inmates Bill of Rights.
Signed into law by Gov. Ronald Reagan in 1968 and expanded in 1974 by Gov. Edmund G. “Jerry” Brown Jr., the single-paragraph statute stated that prisoners retained all rights except those that had to be denied to protect prison security and public safety.
Inmates, for example, could wear their hair as they pleased. They could subscribe to almost any publication. They had access to courts and news reporters. They even gained the privilege during Reagan’s tenure of having private overnight visits from spouses.
By the 1990s, however, lawmakers, responding to a crime-weary public, took a very different tack.
The Legislature passed harsh new sentencing laws. At the height of the anti-crime push in 1994, lawmakers watered down the Inmates Bill of Rights. The statute now limits inmates’ rights generally to those required by federal laws, which are far more restrictive.
“There’s no stopping it. It has become a runaway train,” said Barbara Sianez, 44.
Sianez was one of the first to feel the changes. Because of 1995 limits on visiting privileges for lifers, Sianez and her husband of 14 years, a convicted murderer serving a life sentence, no longer can have overnight visits.
“It looks like it has to get real bad before it gets better,” Sianez said.
The first changes came quickly after the Legislature, in its get-tough-with-criminals mood, revised the Inmates Bill of Rights.
Starting in 1995, the department announced limits on the most graphic pornography, revoked overnight visiting privileges for lifers and sex offenders and curtailed reporters’ access to inmates. Separate legislation banned inmates from profiting from their crimes.
The initial changes affected relatively few inmates. Only two publications--a white supremacist periodical and one dealing with pedophilia--were banned outright. Few pornographic publications have been confiscated.
The state attorney general has sued to block only three inmates from profiting from their crimes, and dropped two of the cases because the inmates made no money.
A third suit is pending. It contends that producers of a tabloid television show paid $4,000 to a third party for an interview with Richard Allen Davis. A repeat felon on parole, Davis was sentenced to death for the kidnapping and murder of 12-year-old Polly Klaas, a crime that was a catalyst for many of the tougher new laws.
The latest proposals affect virtually every inmate. Iron pits in exercise yards have been part of California prisons at least since the 1950s, though officials began limiting inmates’ access two years ago and reduced the level of weights to 165 pounds. The department reasoned that inmates spent hours pumping weights to build massive muscles, which made them more of a threat to guards and to the public upon their release.
“It has been a progressively diminished activity to the point where we’re going to take them out all together,” said Department of Corrections spokesman Tip Kindel. “I don’t think this comes as a surprise.”
Perhaps more surprising, and fundamental, is the proposal, now pending before the state office of administrative law, to remove lawbooks.
California prisons had been under a 1972 federal court order to maintain full law libraries. The libraries include complete sets of casebooks containing state and federal court opinions, books of state and federal legal codes, and assorted other lawbooks and legal periodicals.
Citing a 1996 U.S. Supreme Court decision allowing prisons to limit law libraries, the state Department of Corrections persuaded U.S. District Judge Susan Illston in San Francisco to lift the 1972 injunction, opening the way for the department to remove most lawbooks.
Deputy Atty. Gen. Peter Siggins, head of the state Justice Department unit that represents prisons, said the department intends to remove casebooks and code books but not so-called hornbooks that describe the law in general terms or forms and guides that inmates can use to file lawsuits.
"[Inmates] are going to feel as if their ability to prosecute cases is going to be curtailed,” Siggins said. “I’m not convinced of that. I’ve never been convinced that a collection of books is a replacement for a lawyer.”
The nonprofit Prison Law Office based in San Rafael is trying to block the department from removing the books, by pressing their case in federal courts and before the state office of administrative law, which must approve such changes. Attorney Steve Fama, of the legal aid group, warned that removing lawbooks will “put prisoners in a position where they don’t have a real stake in our society.”
John Irwin, recently retired sociology professor at San Francisco State University, is appalled at the changes.
He helped write the Inmates Bill of Rights, and had a personal understanding of the issues. He spent five years in the 1950s at Soledad Prison for armed robbery, at a time when rehabilitation was the main goal of California prisons.
“We’re going back decades and decades in terms of punishment,” Irwin said. He predicted that because of the changes, parolees will have a far harder time reentering society than he did.
“Along with losing their mobility, they are losing what little choices they had inside prison,” Irwin said. “Imagine spending years having everything determined for you. It’s maddening. Convicts come out and they’re enraged.”
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Prisoners’ Rights Restricted
Responding to the Legislature and Gov. Pete Wilson, the California Department of Corrections began limiting inmates’ privileges in 1995.
What the department has done so far:
* Imposed grooming standards limiting the length of inmates’ hair.
* Restricted the most graphic pornography. Magazines such as Playboy, Penthouse and Hustler still are available.
* Limited weightlifting by requiring that it be part of a specific exercise program, and reduced the amount of weight available.
* Barred inmates from profiting from their crimes by, for example, accepting payment for interviews or collecting book royalties.
* Limited news reporters’ access to inmates for interviews.
* Banned overnight visiting privileges for inmates serving life sentences and for many sex offenders.
Plans for future restrictions:
* Remove many lawbooks.
* Remove all weightlifting equipment
* Begin randomly testing inmates for drugs.
* Ban packages sent directly to inmates from the outside.
* Require all inmates to wear prison-issue white jumpsuits instead of blue jeans and blue shirts.