Monday, March 27, 2006

shanking your cellmate

The U.S. Supreme Court will hear a case today about whether or not prison officials can withhold reading or personal materials from inmates as a tactic for behavioral control. This means, according to the AP story, keeping magazines and newspapers, as well as personal photographs, away from the inmate "for months and sometimes years".

The lawyer for the state of Pennsylvania says that,

"It is a matter of common sense that withholding desirable inmate privileges -- as a sanction for misbehavior -- may deter prisoner misconduct and induce behavioral reform."

I'm guessing 1) this guy likes to ground his kids, and 2) they think he's an a**hole.

There's a pretty strong distinction between "deter(ing) "prison misconduct" and "induc(ing) behavioral reform," but even deterrence is a little shakey. They're in prison, they knew commiting a crime could result in them serving time and that obviously didn't work. But "behavioral reform"? Taking away an inmate's family photos and news from the outside world does not seem likely to contribute to the inmate's ability to see the error of his ways. It seems more likely to contribute to him feeling the need to express his need for power and control over his own life in another way (shanking his cellmate sounds like a viable option). I can't argue about the constitutionality of the tactic, but effectiveness?

I know there's at least one of you out there that's likely to have an opinion about this one -- and to bring research to back it up.


Anonymous said...

i love how you bait the nerds.
the rehab argument isn't that taking newspapers and magazines away will rehabilitate but that selectively allowing them will encourage good behavior. or, as the spelling-challenged PA Dept of Corrections puts it, "The Department justifies the policy as a rehavilitative behavior modification tool, reasoning that greater access to reading material wouldl motivate Level 2 inmates to behave better so that they can be reclassified to Level 1." as roberts asked in questioning (paraphrase), what stick/carrot do corrections officials have? this is a common argument that states make and the supreme court often rewards it by deferring to experts in the form of wardens. this actually, is the same reasoning that upholds felon disenfranchisement laws (a featured subplot on last night's west wing). anyway, i think that the supreme court will uphold the PA policy and that PA shouldn't use it because it's dumb. the dude filing suit against PA (Banks) is no nice guy (he killed 13) but it's unclear how much safer the prison will be by confiscating his christian science monitor (that's the subscription that the prison is barring). finally, i can't believe that Beard (the corrections commissioner) is really behind this. he's known as a pretty reasonable guy in the field.
-j horror

Anonymous said...

funny stuff from today's nytimes:

Justice Ginsburg asked Mr. Rovelli to explain why the policy permitted inmates to order paperback books from the prison library while prohibiting newspapers and magazines. "The rationality of that line escapes me," she said.

Mr. Rovelli replied that paperbacks were "small and compact and much more difficult to use as weapons" by the "worst of the worst" inmates to whom the policy applies. About 40 inmates fit into this category at any one time, housed in a special "long-term segregation unit" in the state prison at Fayette, Pa.

Chief Justice Roberts asked: "Is a paperback copy of 'War and Peace' less dangerous?"

It was a "difficult line to draw," Mr. Rovelli acknowledged, while turning his concession into an opening. That was where the expertise of prison officials, to which judges should defer, came in, he said.

He explained that the policy was "guided by the experience of prison administrators," who had observed the "high value" that prisoners placed on access to newspapers and magazines. These were therefore removed to give prisoners an incentive to change their behavior in order to gain a transfer to a lower-security area of the prison.

This was a justification that the appeals court had found insufficient in the absence of any evidence that it worked or had "any basis in real human psychology," the majority opinion said.

The majority added that far from disregarding Supreme Court precedents requiring deference to prison administrators' judgment, it was simply trying to determine "whether an asserted goal is logically connected to the prison regulation."

three things on this:
1) did i have the prosecution's argument nailed yesterday or what?
2) war and peace? i like this guy's style!
3) it's interesting that the lower court denied the PA DOC on the grounds that they had no evidence. My knowledge of Supreme Court jurisprudence is narrow but informed folks have always told me that the SC rarely roots their criminal justice arguments in social science evidence.
oh, and 4) read the article - the defense bar seems like the biggest baby ever. sack up - it's the supreme court!

-j horror

abf said...

Thanks, J Horror. I did bait the nerds, didn't I? Or maybe it was a particular nerd -- and he fell for the bait?

It would make sense that inmates would be more invested in newspapers and magazines than in books from the library -- whether or not they made better weapons. (Although Roberts does seem to be acknowledging that getting clocked on the head by a copy of "War and Peace" might hurt.) It's news from the outside world. I would guess that it better enables them to feel a connection to what is going outside of the prison walls. Plus, there are pictures . . .

No decision yet from the Court.