How well jails are run or managed varies widely. While prison systems have little in the way of transparency or oversight, much less accountability, jails tend to have even less – and all too often the sheriffs who run local jails are the most powerful political figures in the county, with some managing multi-million dollar budgets and patronage machines. This is frequently accompanied by little oversight or accountability, with predictable results. Human rights violations often flourish and, as this issue’s cover story indicates, all too often prisoner deaths result not from violence but rather due to neglect and indifference to basic needs such as adequate medical and mental health care.
From a media and news perspective, size matters. Thus, while larger jail systems such as those in San Diego, Los Angeles, New York City, Cook County in Chicago or Fulton County in Atlanta may receive more media attention than smaller jails, that doesn’t mean the latter are necessarily better run or managed. When PLN has sued smaller jails over censorship policies and practices, some have actually argued that because they are small they should not have to comply with the Constitution. In other words, they are large enough to keep people locked up but too small to follow the law when they do, apparently.
Not surprisingly, when jails are so indifferent to the people they confine that numerous deaths occur as a result, they do not fare much better when it comes to respecting the free speech rights of prisoners while they’re still alive. In addition to racking up an impressive body count, the San Diego County jail system recently implemented a postcard-only policy in which all mail sent to or from prisoners is censored unless it is a postcard. Stories like this illustrate the need for investigative journalism and the important role that the media plays in providing some minimal oversight over government agencies through news reporting.
In other news, it is once again time for our annual fundraiser for Prison Legal News and PLN’s parent non-profit organization, the Human Rights Defense Center. By now all of our subscribers should have received a fundraising letter. Unlike most organizations, we do not bombard our subscribers with pleas for money throughout the year; rather, we do one annual fundraiser mailing. While we always need extra funds, the reality is that it costs money to raise money – such as printing costs and postage.
Thus far this year we have racked up an impressive set of accomplishments. For the first time in history, a federal court held that a jail’s postcard-only policy was unconstitutional; this came after a four-day bench trial in Portland, Oregon in Prison Legal News v. Columbia County. [See: PLN, June 2013, p.42]. PLN is currently challenging postcard-only policies in Arizona, Michigan, Georgia and Florida. Securing and maintaining the communication rights of prisoners and those who want to correspond with them is one of the core functions of PLN’s litigation team. As a result of our litigation efforts, PLN won the Society of Professional Journalists’ First Amendment Award. [See: PLN, August 2013, p.34].
Further, after decades of struggle, the Federal Communications Commission recently capped interstate prison phone rates thanks to the Campaign for Prison Phone Justice and the tireless efforts of attorneys Lee Petro, Deborah Golden and Phil Fornaci, who represent Martha Wright in her petition before the FCC. [See: PLN, Sept. 2013, p.42]. But our work is far from done, as we need to ensure the FCC’s order is implemented and enforced. Securus, the nation’s second-largest prison phone company, has already vowed to file a legal challenge to the FCC’s order; more importantly, we still need to reduce prison phone rates for intrastate (in-state) calls, which constitute the majority of prison and jail calls.
All of this takes money, of course.
David Ganim is PLN’s full-time prison phone justice director. In addition to having a staff person working specifically on this issue, a significant amount of my time and that of other PLN/HRDC staff is spent on prison phone-related matters, plus we have to expend considerable funds to travel to Washington, DC to meet with FCC officials and to speak at conferences and other events on prison phone topics. But we are getting results!
Thanks to the Campaign for Prison Phone Justice (www.phonejustice.org), prisoners and their families will now save millions of dollars on long distance calls each year. We could not have done it without your financial support and all of the letters that prisoners and their family members sent to the FCC. This year, like last year, we are dedicating all donations from our annual fundraiser to the Campaign for Prison Phone Justice. Our goal is to raise at least $90,000 to fund and expand our role in the campaign. This is a critical time where, having won the most significant FCC victory in history on the issue of prison phone rates, we need to keep up the momentum and pressure.
Some supporters can only afford a few dollars or a book of stamps. Every little bit helps, so please send whatever you can. No one should ever think their donation is insignificant or doesn’t make a difference, because it does. I personally review all contributions we receive and send thank-you notes to those who make donations over $50. I am always impressed and touched when I see prisoners on death row who donate books of stamps, as that is a huge sacrifice proportionate to their available income and resources. If you think the issue of fair and just phone rates for prisoners and their families is important, and want to support the fight against greedy prison and jail officials and the telecom industry, then please help fund our part of the Campaign for Prison Phone Justice. We need to raise $90,000 this year to oppose prison phone companies that make around $1.2 billion annually off the backs of prisoners and their families.
If you cannot afford to make a donation, no matter how small, then please encourage your friends and family to do so. You can also encourage them to subscribe to PLN and purchase any of the books we distribute. With the holiday season approaching, there is no better gift than a PLN subscription or some of our books. Thank you for supporting our important work!
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