County Makes Correct Call on Jail Letters

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.

Rich Robinson is an attorney and political consultant in Silicon Valley. Opinions are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of San Jose Inside.


  1. Rich,
    I have mixed feelings about this issue. I think inmates do deserve humane treatment as long as they aren’t endangering others, or sending out coded messages via friends and families.

    Having said that, many of these inmates are NOT innocent! Those are the ones I have issues with. These guilty inmates DO send messages out through mail with orders to kill someone, or other unlawful things. You can’t ignore that.

    And what about the victims/families of murder, child molestation, and rape victims? Where is the compassion for them? Isn’t jail supposed to be a punishment for convicted felons?

    I get really tired of hearing just one side of this issue. I work with victims and and their families. It is heartbreaking to see them doing time right along with offenders. Their plight and rights are ignored.

    The judicial system re victimizes them, and no one seems to give a dam. If you are going to speak out, advocate for anyone, it should be for them, not convicted felons.

  2. Great! You’ll be able to write to your friend, and victim of himself, Shirakawa while he sits in jail waiting for all the other crimes he committed to be discovered!!

  3. The lack of common sense and compassion with which our incarcerated mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, sons and daughters are treated is chilling. I hate our County Jail system. I hate everything about it.

    • r gomez,

      As they say, “Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time.”

      You said, “The lack of common sense and compassion with which our incarcerated mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, sons and daughters are treated is chilling.”

      Try being a victim of one of these “incarcerated mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, sons and daughters.” I think you’ll see things a lot differently. Victims and their family have ZERO rights, and no one cries for their lost loved ones..

      • Most people are in jail for nonviolent drug offenses.  70% of our prison population could be out on the street if drugs were legal.

        Obviousl, violent criminals, those who steal etc. need to be incarcerated.  But the statitstics for the minority communities is out of proportion.  Many are innocent, but just don’t have the money or resources to prove it.

        But I do agree that the victims of crime need our support and empathy too.

        • Rich,
          I would like to challenge you to do an article on homicide victim’s families, and victim’s of violent crime. They are the ones that deserve our attention.

          Their voices are rarely heard, and no one in the media advocates for them. I will gladly introduce them to you, so you can balance your next article on offenders with the plight of their victims. 

          Victims spend years, and decades in horrific pain, and are being re victimized by our judicial system, and in the end, they rarely get justice.

          They are prisoners too, but no one ever acknowledges that. The only difference between criminals and victims, is that criminals have a lawyer who ensures their rights, and advocates for them. Victims are NEVER afforded that right/privilege. 

          As to your assertion that “many people who are in jail are innocent,” I don’t agree. The Police and DA don’t just arbitrarily arrest and jail people who are following the law. Most criminals get a way with a lot, and aren’t ever punished for it.

          My neighbor molested his 18 month old son, did three days in jail, and walked on a lesser charge, and is now OFF probation. Sadly, his Welfare dependent, uneducated girl friend moved back in with him, and is expecting their second child. Who is advocating for these two innocent children? 

          Having said that, there are no “victimless” crimes Rich. Buying, using, or selling drugs hurts everyone. If you don’t believe that, look at the statistics. I have worked with both victims and offenders for decades. I know this to be true first hand.

          I also do not agree with you that minority communities are being “singled out for prosecution based on race.” Yes, minorities are arrested at a higher rate, but it is not because they are of color Rich. Also, I believe that anyone, regardless of race, who can afford a good attorney, or pulls the race card usually walks a way scott free. I’ve seen it with my own two eyes too.

          When I worked as a mediator in the Victim Offender Program for well over a decade, my case load consisted of a higher percentage of minorities. EVERYONE of them admitted they were GUILTY of the crime/crimes they were arrested for, AND their victims were mostly MINORITIES. I don’t see anyone crying about minority victims, or touting those stats, do you Rich?

          Unless and until we reach out to minority communities and help them with drug, and alcohol addiction, or offer them mental health, and resources, help them find good jobs, and get them into higher education, the stats won’t change.

          I do not believe jail is the answer, in some cases. Especially when it comes to the mentally ill. I believe in investing in them, and in their future is the answer. But locking them up is easier, so that needs to change.

          I also believe that intervention programs for youth whose families have a long history of gang, drug, Welfare dependency, and incarceration needs to be implemented. We need to show youth a better way of life, and of hope Rich.

          What I don’t believe in is making excuses for people based on race. We are all responsible/accountable for our actions. We all make choices that require consequences. I know, I was arrested as a youth, was on probation, and turned my life around thanks to my family, and good role models who invested their time and love in me. Now I’m trying to do the same for at risk youth and their families.

          I honestly believe that honor begins within, and at home. Parents and families need to step up and heal what is going on in their own homes. If they start doing that, then the change we so badly need will begin to happen.

          If you sat down with Pastors Sanchez and Lara, BOTH Latinos, you would see that everything I am saying is true. They both were in gangs, used drugs, and broke the law. Today, they have turned their lives around and are reaching out to minority communities and their families.

          They are challenging parents and their families to get help, and to turn their lives around. They help them with jobs, education, and resources. They are investing their most precious resource in them, and that is their time. 

          What they aren’t doing Rich is using the race card, denial, finger pointing, or making excuses for bad behavior. I love and honor them both because they hold they key to change~

  4. Kathleen, I didnt have to try- I have been a victim of a crime. And yes I also feel there is a lot to be sad about when it comes to victim rights. With that said, when you state, “dont do the crime if you cant do the time”. Dare I say there are many reasons people are incarcerated in our jails. Like when deinstitutionalization which moved thousands of mentally ill people out of hospitals— & into jails & prisons.

    • r gomez,

      I’m sorry that you were victimized. I too have been a victim of crime.

      You are correct about the mentally ill being unfairly incarcerated, but many of them do commit crimes too.

      The bottom line for me is, that while I do not agree with feeling sorry for, or making excuses for offenders, I do believe that as a society, we need serious change to happen.

      We cannot ignore the need to keep prison, or jail guards safe, nor can we keep using race as a defense to the overpopulation of minorities in our jails/prisons.

      We need programs that provide resources, education, mental health, intervention/prevention, and drug rehab programs to combat the problem.

      But violent criminals need to be punished, and victims of homicide, violent crime, and their families need to come first. NOT offenders~

  5. Rich,
    I thought you might find this of interest:

    From Verndell.C.Robinson on Fatherhood.

    Dear National Forum Site Leads:

    Many of you probably saw or read President Obama’s address on the importance of fatherhood in a speech from Chicago; I’ve pulled out some of the remarks below that speak directly to the connection between youth violence prevention and responsible fatherhood.

    “But I’ve also said no law or set of laws can prevent every senseless act of violence in this country. When a child opens fire on another child, there’s a hole in that child’s heart that government can’t fill—only community and parents and teachers and clergy can fill that hole. In too many neighborhoods today—whether here in Chicago or the farthest reaches of rural America—it can feel like for a lot of young people the future only extends to the next street corner or the outskirts of town; that no matter how much you work or how hard you try, your destiny was determined the moment you were born. There are entire neighborhoods where young people, they don’t see an example of somebody succeeding. And for a lot of young boys and young men, in particular, they don’t see an example of fathers or grandfathers, uncles, who are in a position to support families, and be held up and respected.

    Now, that means we’ve got to grow our economy and create more good jobs. It means we’ve got to equip every American with the skills and the training to fill those jobs. And it means we’ve got to rebuild ladders of opportunity for everybody willing to climb them.

    Now, that starts at home. There’s no more important ingredient for success, nothing that would be more important for us reducing violence than strong, stable families—which means we should do more to promote marriage and encourage fatherhood. Don’t get me wrong—as the son of a single mom, who gave everything she had to raise me with the help of my grandparents, I turned out okay. But we’ve got single moms out here, they’re heroic in what they’re doing and we are so proud of them. But at the same time, I wish I had had a father who was around and involved. Loving, supportive parents—and, by the way, that’s all kinds of parents—that includes foster parents, and that includes grandparents, and extended families; it includes gay or straight parents.

    Those parents supporting kids—that’s the single most important thing. Unconditional love for your child—that makes a difference. If a child grows up with parents who have work, and have some education, and can be role models, and can teach integrity and responsibility, and discipline and delayed gratification—all those things give a child the kind of foundation that allows them to say, my future, I can make it what I want. And we’ve got to make sure that every child has that, and in some cases, we may have to fill the gap and the void if children don’t have that.

    So we should encourage marriage by removing the financial disincentives for couples who love one another but may find it financially disadvantageous if they get married. We should reform our child support laws to get more men working and engaged with their children. And my administration will continue to work with the faith community and the private sector this year on a campaign to encourage strong parenting and fatherhood. Because what makes you a man is not the ability to make a child, it’s the courage to raise one.

    In light of these remarks please see the information below about the “This Is Fatherhood” Challenge. We’d really appreciate it if the National Forum Cities please help us get the word out to youth serving agencies and parenting/fatherhood programs in your cities.

    Inspired by President Obama’s Fatherhood & Mentoring Initiative

    Dwayne Wade and Grammy Winning Artist Lecrae Join Forces to Champion Fatherhood.

    Our nation’s first multi-media “Fatherhood Challenge” starts this week.

    Grammy award winning hip hop artist Lecrae and World Champion basketball player Dwayne Wade join forces for the launch of the National Campaign “This
    Is Fatherhood”. The campaign will begin with the nation’s first ever “Fatherhood

    Challenge”, where contestants will submit a song, photo, video or an essay that answers the question, “What does fatherhood mean to me.” The call to accept

    submissions started May 6th on the” website. Participants will compete for cash prizes and a trip to Washington D.C.

    The “This Is Fatherhood” campaign has joined together a diverse set of cultural influencers and fatherhood experts to support the competition. Our judging panel is comprised of elite professionals who have won Grammy’s, Pulitzer Prizes, and

    British Academy Awards. Our diverse group of partners range from governmental and nonprofit organizations such as the Department of Justice’s Center for Faith Based and Neighborhood Initiatives, The National Fatherhood Initiative, the Mentoring Project, the Wade’s World Foundation, prominent media organizations and many, many more.

    The Fatherhood Challenge is one of the first initiatives of its kind that takes a preemptive approach toward the fatherless crisis by creating
    awareness of the issue among youth and adults alike through utilizing the power of social media and emerging technology. Winners will be announced June 3, 2013 via our campaign website,

    The winning contestants will receive national recognition at a culminating ceremony on Father’s Day 2013.

  6. I agree the victims of crime often are prisoners.  But there is a victims bill of rights.  That said, no one can replace a loved one, undo a past violent act, or gain full compensation for a wrong. 

    Our system of justice is imperfect, both for defendant and victim.  Some wrongful acts don’t even rate as crimes.  BofA gets bailed out, but still manages to foreclose on a home that was bought with a predatory product—affter they have lost the paper and refuse to refinances. 

    Bobby Kennedy once noted that there was a pervasive violence in America that went unnotiticed.  It is the violence against the poor, it is insidious and no less harmful than the outragious acts that make the papers everyday.

    If you are wealthy, you can sometimes get away with murder.  If you are a Corporation it is downright encouraged.  The Cigarette companies have been doing it for years. 

    Who speaks out against that violence that occurs everyday?  We need, as a society, to get better at solutions.  We will never be perfect, but that doesn’t mean we should not try.