February: Inmates should have access to newspaper clippings

2004 Columns

Have you ever clipped a newspaper or magazine article and mailed it to a friend or family member?  If that person is a Wisconsin prisoner, he or she almost certainly did not receive it. For several years, the Department of Corrections has had in place a “publishers only” rule, restricting inmates to receiving such items directly from a publisher.

This means is that, unless an inmate has a subscription to a specific newspaper or magazine, he is prevented from receiving articles. He won’t be able to read the wedding announcement of a sibling, the scores of a son’s soccer game, or the review of a daughter’s piano recital. Even his grandmother’s obituary would be off limits. So would this column.

The only clippings an inmate is allowed are those directly related to his criminal case.

As a state prison inmate, through the years I have been prevented from receiving clippings of everything from real-estate ads to articles about 9/11 and the war in Iraq. Knowing that I am an avid follower of current events, friends of mine from around the world have periodically sent clippings to me from their local newspapers, so I could see how their media are reporting global events. All those articles have been denied to me.

Other inmates I know have been denied the same things. When a friend of mine was preparing to be released, his family sent him the employment classified ads from his hometown newspaper. Despite knowing the prisoner would need to find a job after release, prison officials refused to let him receive the clippings.

Within its rules and regulations, the DOC says communication between an inmate and his family and friends “fosters reintegration into the community and maintenance of family ties.” It “helps to motivate the inmate and thus contributes to morale and the security of the inmate and staff.” (Section 309.39 of the Wisconsin Administrative Code.)

So why would the DOC have a policy that prevents inmates from receiving clippings from family and friends that foster communication and keep the inmate informed of developments in the outside world?

The DOC has claimed that clippings were “altered property,” and thus raised a security concern. But how much danger, really, can a clipped newspaper article pose?

Nate Lindell, a prisoner at the Wisconsin Secure Protection Facility in Boscobel, filed a lawsuit in federal court, challenging the policy. This past May, Judge Barbara Crabb ruled against the DOC, determining that the “publishers only” rule violated the First Amendment. She ordered the DOC to stop enforcing the policy and allow inmates to receive clippings from other sources, such as family and friends.

Unfortunately, the DOC decided to interpret Judge Crabb’s ruling as applying only to the Boscobel prison. For the rest of Wisconsin’s 22,000 prisoners, the policy is still being enforced and clippings are denied.

Thus, taxpayers may end up paying the DOC’s legal costs to defend against more such suits. If the DOC applies each ruling to only the specific prison in which the filing inmate is confined, there is a potential for a dozen or more lawsuits to change the policy across the state.

Along with newspaper and magazine clippings, prisoners are prevented from receiving printed downloads from the Internet unless they come directly from the Web site. Because inmates in Wisconsin do not have access to the Internet, they cannot obtain anything directly from Web sites.

Around the country, the federal courts have consistently applied the same legal standards to the Internet as they have to printed materials. Still, the DOC continues enforcing its blanket ban.

There are no security concerns or “protection of the public” reasons why inmates should be denied clippings or Internet downloads. All incoming mail is screened by staff, and if something inappropriate is sent to an inmate it is stopped from reaching him — whether it’s a clipping, a download or regular letter.

It’s time for the Department of Corrections to change its policies to conform with the law, allowing all inmates to receive clippings and Internet downloads from friends and family.

Your Right to Know is a monthly column produced by the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, a media group devoted to protecting public access to meetings and records. Daniel Harr is serving a 10-year sentence at the Kettle Moraine Correctional Institution.