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West Michigan Counties Consider Adopting Constitutionally-questionable Jail Policy

January 24, 2011

(This article was submitted by Robby Fischer.)

The Muskegon County Jail has announced plans to implement a new policy that will limit inmates’ correspondence to standard-sized postcards.  The policy, which is slated to go into effect February 7th, has already been adopted by jails in Ingham, Isabella, and Gratiot Counties, and is being considered for adoption in Oceana, Newaygo, and Allegan Counties.

The main reasons for the switch, as Muskegon Sheriff Dean Roesler explained to the Muskegon Chronicle, are to “cut down on staff time and allow them to concentrate on other duties, like supervising the inmates.”  Roesler also claims that the new policy will “increase our security” by cutting down on contraband being mailed into the jail- specifically drugs and porn.

In another Chronicle article, Roesler claimed that he was “on solid ground” regarding the policy’s legality, on the grounds that other counties have already implemented the same postcard-only regulation. “There have been challenges raised, but none of them successful that I’m aware of,” Roesler said.

Sheriff Roelser, it would appear based on that statement, must be unaware of the recent class action lawsuit filed in Colorado Springs against the El Paso county jail, wherein that jail’s postcard-only policy was determined to be unconstitutional and was successfully reversed. The decision to reverse the practice came December 20th, 2010, after U.S. District Judge Wiley Daniel granted a preliminary injunction to the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado.  (View the Martinez vs. Maketa case).

It would behoove Sheriff Roesler to take this news into account, because the last I checked, a violation of the First Amendment rights in Michigan is just as unconstitutional as a violation of First Amendment rights in Colorado.

Luckily, Muskegonites are organizing against the policy.  ‘Letters Are Better’ is a grass-roots effort that has planned a call-in day for this Thursday, January 27.  On that day, anyone interested in objecting to the postcard-only policy should call Sheriff Roesler at 231.724.6236 and let him know… as frequently as possible.  If you can’t get through to the Sheriff, call Mark Burns, the Jail Administrator, at 231.724.6289.

You may consider bringing up these talking points:

– Contrary to the Sheriff’s statement in the January 7th article in the Muskegon Chronicle, there have been successful challenges against the postcard-only policy.  The Martinez vs. Maketa case in El Paso County, Colorado is the case in point.

– Denying inmates the right to enclose their messages limits freedom of expression.  In the words of the ACLU in Colorado, “the postcard-only policy has forced prisoners to either abandon important correspondence or risk divulging highly confidential, sensitive information to anyone who will handle or see a postcard. As a result, gay prisoners have been chilled from expressing themselves when writing to their intimate partners. Prisoners with HIV or Hepatitis C have refrained from corresponding with family members about their medical conditions.”

– The argument has been made that eliminating the need have someone reading letters will “save the taxpayer’s dollars”… but in reality, that one small change will, at most, save taxpayer cents.  If you cannot afford to run a jail responsibly, then you cannot afford to run a jail. Period. The proper course of action in that case is to shut it down… and that is an act that will save taxpayer dollars.

– Cases of contraband and witness intimidation are often cited as proof that letters must be done away with… but these instances say much more about the jail staff than they do about the mode of communication.  If the staff had been doing their job correctly, those letters would have been intercepted.

– Rebecca Wallace, staff attorney with the ACLU of Colorado, put it nicely: “Beyond their clear constitutional violations, these policies are simply counter-productive. Letters clearly allow prisoners to maintain relationships with friends and family that will aid in their return to life after incarceration. If jail officials are serious about lowering recidivism and increasing public safety, they would do well to recognize that preserving prisoners’ rights to send letters actually protects us all.

This unconstitutional postcard-only policy must be exposed and overturned now.  If it is able to gain a foothold in West Michigan, it will set a terrifying precedent for the rest of the jails in the state.

If you would like to know more about this resistance effort, or other ways to get involved, email lettersarebetter@hotmail.com, or call 231-733-5370.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Nancy Rutledge permalink
    January 25, 2011 1:47 am

    I am rarely moved to comment in a negative way to the posts on here. I so strongly disagree with the authors comments on the importance of this issue. In a world full of very real injustices…pick your battles.

  2. January 25, 2011 2:04 am

    If someone was wrongfully imprisoned or received a harsh sentence, they would need more than a post card most likely to explain their case to an advocate group , lawyer, or a government official, as would the response from such people.

    As recent advances in DNA have shown , there are many falsely imprisoned people in this country.

    This is a battle worth fighting for.

  3. Kate Wheeler permalink
    January 25, 2011 2:46 am

    I agree. No civil rights issue is trivial. The Muskegon area seems to be particularly rife with police- and sheriff-related issues. Thanks for writing this and letting us know about this grass-roots movement to take a stand against one part of the injustices going on in that area.

  4. julian permalink
    January 25, 2011 2:38 pm

    we live in prison society, there is nothing more important than destroying the prisons that are our society’s institutions.

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