Tuesday, September 05, 2017

Add accountability to rehab, reentry arguments for inmates' access to email

Grits has long believed that there's little big-picture risk and much benefit from the federal system of allowing prison inmates limited access to monitored email services. At first, this view stemmed mainly from a desire to let inmates stay in touch with their loved ones, which helps facilitate both rehabilitation and successful reentry. But Hurricane Harvey shows that prisoners' email can also serve as an accountability mechanism by giving voice to eyes and ears inside the prison walls.

State prisoners in harms way were evacuated during the recent floods (no clear, comprehensive picture yet of what happened in county jails), but federal prisoners apparently were not, including several privately operated facilities and a federal prison in Beaumont.

Regarding the latter, the federal Bureau of Prisons told the Houston Chronicle that "although the facility's water source was compromised and had intermittent power, it was 'adequately maintained with generator backup power when needed. There is an adequate food and water supply for both inmates and staff.'" But the Chronicle obtained emails from prisoners family members which told a different story. One described:
a scene where a fellow inmate passed out Thursday night because of malnutrition; inmates haven't had a warm meal in more than five days, he said. Because of the water shortage, four portable toilets were brought in to service the man's building. No chemicals were placed in the toilets, which have already been "topped off" with waste, the man said. 
"Save me Jesus," the man said in an email. "I never thought nothing like this would happen in prison."
From the family member who shared the email: "Animals are treated better then those men. They evacuated all those animals and made sure they were safe, why can't they make sure those men in those units are safe, fed, healthy with clean clothes and enough amount of water? They are people too." The 

If this prisoner's account is accurate and complete, then federal inmates in Beaumont experienced nothing like the horrors that went on in New Orleans with inmates during Katrina. But the rosy picture portrayed by the feds wasn't entirely true. And without prisoner access to email, there would be no credible source to dispute inaccurate government claims.

Sometimes the government misrepresents reality to offer only a self-interested perspective, and the closed nature of prisons makes them especially good at concealing their problems from the outside world. Providing electronic communications access to prisoners can add first-person narratives to the mix to help inform those on the outside what goes on inside.

Texas inmates can pay to have incoming emails printed out and given to them, but cannot send outgoing email.

So, we may add "holding government accountable" to "facilitates rehabilitation" and "improves reentry prospects" among the best argument for providing inmates limited access to monitored email, as has long been successfully accomplished in the well-established federal system.

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