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Editorial supports PLN suit against Cache County, Utah jail

Herald Journal, Feb. 1, 2005.
Editorial supports PLN suit against Cache County, Utah jail - Herald Journal 2005

Herald Journal, February, 2005

Inmate subscriptions would provide incentive

The publishers of Prison Legal News -- a magazine that reports on litigation affecting those who are incarcerated -- has filed a lawsuit of its own against Cache County.

But don't let the irony of the situation distract you from the issue at hand, which we consider critical.

PLN alleges that Cache County is violating the First Amendment rights of inmates in the local clink by prohibiting them from subscribing to newspapers and magazines, including PLN.

The attorney representing the magazine, Brian Barnard of Salt Lake City, admits that misconduct resulting in incarceration can lead to the restriction or denial of certain constitutional rights. However, he argues that among the few rights inmates retain are those protected by the First Amendment.

From a legal standpoint, the fullest discussion of the question by the Supreme Court came in the 1974 case, Pell v. Procunier.

In Pell, the court said, "A prison inmate retains those First Amendment rights that are not inconsistent with his status as prisoner or with the legitimate penological objectives of the corrections system."

So the question becomes, is it inconsistent with their status or the objectives of the corrections system for inmates to receive newspapers and magazines?

We say no way, and lending credence to our argument is the fact that the vast majority of jails and prisons in this country -- including the Salt Lake County Jail and the Utah State Prison -- allow inmates to have newspaper and magazine subscriptions.

In defense of the local policy prohibiting subscriptions, jail commander Capt. Kim Cheshire noted that if all 300 inmates had individual ones, magazines and newspapers would "pile up in the cells." He also said newspaper can be fashioned into weapons.

But neither of these arguments holds enough weight to offset inmates' First Amendment rights. If there's concern about newspapers and magazines piling up in cells, the jail could simply limit the number inmates are allowed to have in their possession at any one time. And if there's concern about weapons production -- which sounds rather farfetched -- jailers could simply monitor the use of newspapers and magazines, as they do with everything else inmates are allowed. When you think about it, almost anything conceivably could be used as a weapon -- but that doesn't mean inmates should be forced to walk around naked or go without brushing their teeth.

Ultimately, we believe this policy serves to make things worse for not only inmates, but also jailers. The oft-heard argument made by corrections officials in defense of allowing televisions in their facilities goes something like this: The privilege of watching television is a behavior-modification tool, because when inmates act up, we can take it away.

Indeed, even Barnard concedes jails and prisons legally can deny subscriptions to maximum-security inmates and those who've committed disciplinary violations.

More importantly, though, if you treat inmates like animals -- refusing to allow them even the most basic things -- they're going to act like animals. Despite their crimes, inmates deserve opportunities for education, vocation, rehabilitation and even entertainment. Otherwise, they'll simply become bitter and, upon release, reoffend.

We only wish they could read this.