OVERCOMING WRITER'S CELL BLOCK
I took the LAT to task in my last post for that meandering piece JILL LEOVY did on -- well I'm not sure what it was about except an AK-47, lots of shootings and something about elusive gangsters.
Today, I've got to thank the TIMES for alerting me to two bills that passed committee in the State Assembly and the Senate. JENIFER WARREN has the byline. Both bills would make it easier to visit state inmates. And boy, could it ever be made easier. In a word, prison visits are a pain in the ass.
Here's how it works. Once you contact an inmate by mail and he agrees to talk to you, you fill out a form and mail it to the particular institution. The prison then sends the paperwork over to the CALIFORNIA DEPT. OF JUSTICE where they do a background check on you. That process can take anywhere from a few weeks to a few months. On one hair-pulling, teeth gnashing, phone slamming occasion, it took me nine -- count 'em nine -- months to get the DOJ clearance. Of course, they'd cleared me numerous times before but somehow they couldn't find my paperwork. They kindly offered to have me PAY to get fingerprinted again. I don't mind the fingerprint part. It's the paying for it AGAIN that pissed me off. I'm hoping they're better at tracking terrorists than they are at finding people who pester them twice a week, every week, for nine months.
Once you do get clearance to visit an inmate, that permission is apparently only good at that institution. I've had several occasions where I got permission to vist a guy in SUSANVILLE let's say. Then found out he'd been moved to MULE CREEK. The SUSANVILLE permission wasn't good at MULE CREEK so I had to apply all over again. Technically, all the CDC institutions are supposed to be linked to the same visitor database and the system should be the same all over the state. In reality, each institution is a sovereign entity and doesn't have to recognize policies from other institutions.
Once you do get to visit, the TIMES piece correctly points out that you're not allowed to bring a notebook or a writing instrument. I can understand the reason for that. One way of smuggling drugs into a prison is to soak paper in anything from liquid meth to LSD. And it's easy to pass an innocent looking sheet of paper to an inmate in a CONTACT VISIT situation. Same thing with a pen. Even a .39 cent BIC can make a devastating stabbing weapon if delivered somewhere soft and jellatinoid like an eyeball. So yeah, these are real concerns for prison officials.
The facility sometimes provide you with a few sheets of paper and the tiny nub of a pencil. The reason for the tiny pencil, of course, is that it's tough to use as a stabbing device. I can understand that. So why don't they let us bring a laptop. I've never heard of anyone getting stabbed or shot with a laptop. And what's with the no recording device?
On NO CONTACT visits, (the glass walls and phones you've seen on TV) I have been allowed to bring a notebook and pen. But no tape recorder or laptop. Trust me, there's nothing you can pass through those walls except looks.
I sympathize with the CDC. One of the big problems they have is information flowing into and out of jails. I'm not talking about the kind of information writers and journos are after but the kind that can get people killed on the street or in other prisons -- GREENLIGHTS, ORDERS etc. So if the CDC wants to monitor my conversation, have at it. They'll be reading about it anyway. Same goes for letters. This is a very serious concern for the prisons and dropping the standards for easier access is just one more avenue the bad guys can exploit for evil purposes. Even with the strict regulations, the prisons are already as leaky as a HAITIAN refugee boat. And the gangster intelligence net is impressively effective and robust. Giving bad guys another communication channel will not serve society.
Another issue the TIMES raises is the possibility of glorifying criminals through interviews with media. This is an argument made by victims groups and LAW ENFORCEMENT. This is another legitimate point. You can imagine what some supermarket tabloid or "reality" media would do with audio and video access to people like DAHMER, NG and that psycho with the BOB MARLEY hair that killed his wives/daughters and his children/grandchildren. It's bad enough having a loved one murdered. Seeing the murderer on TV sandwiched between a segment on J-LO's ring and COURTNEY LOVE's boob flashing is just a heartless opening of wounds. This is a tough issue and I'm not sure if anyone can construct a policy that would prevent disgusting exploitation and still allow even-handed access. SB1164, the bill under discussion would allow cameras, notebooks and recording devices in jail interviews. Good luck on threading through that minefield. It would make my work easier but it could turn into NBC's NATURAL BORN KILLER OF THE WEEK SHOW.
Clearly, I've got a dog in this fight and I'd like to have access that's more streamlined and one that makes it easier to do my work. I'd like to have a still camera and a tape recorder. I wish it would happen. And I hope those who might abuse the privilege don't make me regret that my wish came true.