Most people do not consider jail inmates to be an empathic interest group. But many in custody are innocent, as they have not yet been proven guilty, and as a matter of law and right they must be treated justly.
That’s why the Santa Clara County Department of Corrections (DOC) was right in halting a new proposal to limit mail in county jails. County jail Chief John Hirokawa made the decision based on input from the community, including the Commission on the Status of Women, headed by outgoing Chair Ann Grabowski, the Human Relations Commission, and other civil rights advocates.
The county is concerned about illegal contraband reaching inmates—whether it be drugs or weapons—and in this new post 9/11 era, there is risk to employees who must screen the mail. But this is a legitimate issue that can be addressed without the draconian implementation of a policy that would cause great harm to the jail population. The policy under review suggested limiting all mail to postcards, except for communications between inmates and their attorneys.
Letters are necessary for the mental health of all of those incarcerated. These are mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, sons and daughters, all of whom who are separated from those they love and who love them. There is a great need for children who are separated to know that their parents still love and care for them. These letters, birthday cards, pictures and other family connections are sometimes the only link between families, and a postcard can’t sum them up. These communications provide a sense of stability to families who are separated. The incarceration of an individual is not simply a punishment to that person; their condition affects the innocent who are outside the jail walls.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) also noted that such a policy was illegal and unconstitutional.
So, it is back to the drawing board. Hirokawa has promised to put a working group together to formulate a policy that addresses both the contraband issue and the legal rights of inmates. This is democracy at its best.
There are other solutions; the DOC has requested two drug-sniffing canines that can be used to detect contraband. More officers could also be hired to screen the mail. In fact, there may be some highly qualified ex-San Jose police officers looking for work.
At the end of the day, the people in jail are still human beings. As Patrick Henry once pointed out in his statement, “give me liberty or give me death,” it is the deprivation of liberty that is the harshest punishment in a free society. That said, we should never cause any more harm to an individual than necessary to protect society.
Oh, and by the way, some of these folks are innocent.
Rich Robinson is a political consultant in Silicon Valley.