By Te-Ping Chen March 05, 2010
We all know that an informed citizen is a dangerous one….right? That, anyway, is the argument being advanced by administrators at the Garfield County Jail, who have decided that Colorado’s daily newspapers are a commodity too hot for prisoners to handle. So they’ve decided to institute a blanket ban on all newspapers inside the jail.
Oh, except USA Today, that block-lettered hotel standby. Its content is apparently considered tame (ahem, “well-rounded”) enough to make prison officials’ cut.
“It’s for the safety of our inmates,” says jail commander Steve Hopple. “I know that’s hard to quite fathom.”
It’s not, actually. The rationale they’re giving to deny prisoners access to the news is pretty simple: “special-needs inmates.” I.e., those sexual predators convicted of crimes against children, who as Hopple notes, are occasionally targeted by other prisoners seeking to exact their own vigilante vengeance. According to Hopple, news is being withheld from inmates to prevent them from catching wind of other prisoners’ crimes — as a way, you see, of protecting everybody. (Because, the argument goes, if it’s not read in print, that sort of news won’t get around?)
Look. No one’s saying that prisoner-on-prisoner violence isn’t a problem. You don’t need to look any further than the high-profile slaying of someone like the defrocked Roman Catholic priest John Geoghan, a convicted child sex abuser who was strangled and stomped on in 2004 while locked in a Massachusetts prison. (At least 147 people alleged Geoghan had sexually assaulted them; the Boston Archdiocese eventually paid $10 million to settle a suit by dozens of his victims.)
But if a particular story is really going to challenge security, then fine — go ahead and remove the paper that day. A full-on ban is draconian, not to mention ineffective.
A fact that prison officials seem to understand. “We try to keep the local news from spreading. It’s a safeguard in place to slow it down but we can’t absolutely keep news from spreading,” says Hopple. So why keep such a policy in place at all? Hopple notes that other medium-sized and large jails nearby have similar policies, but that doesn’t make their case any more meritorious. And other nearby facilities, like the Pitkun County Jail, evidently haven’t had problems with prisoners reading the local news.
Maybe the problem is something else altogether: too many lock-ups in the first place. Says Hopple, “As our population grows, we run out of space for special-needs inmates and those special-needs inmates’ safety can be placed at risk.” Fair enough. If that’s the case, let’s center our attention on the crux of the issue — a failed criminal justice system that keeps local facilities strapped — and not ineffective, dense-on-crime policies that arbitrarily cut prisoners off from the outside.