Newspaper clippings mailed to inmates at Arkansas prisons are now considered contraband and destroyed, as part of a recently approved policy that the Department of Correction says is necessary to stem the flow of drugs behind bars.
The policy, which cites the difficulty of screening newsprint to determine if it is laced with "illicit substances," was included in an administrative directive addressing inmate correspondence. The policy was signed by Department of Correction Director Wendy Kelley in May.
Under the policy, inmates can receive articles, obituaries, classified ads and other newspaper materials only if they are photocopied or printed on computer paper and comply with the department's content policy. A prisons spokesman said the policy will not affect prisoners' ability to receive newspaper subscriptions directly from the publisher.
Still, advocates say any narrowing of a prisoner's ability to receive published materials amounts to a possible infringement of his First Amendment rights under the U.S. Constitution.
"The right to free speech isn't just the right to say things. It's the right to receive information," said Holly Dickson, the legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union in Arkansas. "It also inhibits the right to interact with friends and family on the outside."
Dickson noted that the policy would require anyone wishing to send news articles into prison to have access to a photocopier or the Internet and a printer.
"If it provides relief, it's only for those that have the resources, which is not the vast majority of inmates or their families," Dickson said.
John Tull, a legal counsel for the Arkansas Press Association, said a court could rule the ban unconstitutional if it finds that other states are able to operate safe prisons without it or with a more narrow alternative restriction.
"So many times the reflex on regulations is, 'let's just ban everything,'" Tull said.
The May directive to inmates and guards states that Department of Correction policy is to allow prisoners the ability to "correspond with family, friends, officials and other significant community contacts with a minimum of interference consistent with the legitimate security needs of the facility."
Department of Correction spokesman Solomon Graves said in an email that the policy was adopted throughout the state's prison system after it was determined that some units had been treating news clippings as contraband while others were not.
"The policy change was made to ensure consistent application of this standard throughout the Department," Graves said in the email.
Graves did not specify what drugs were at issue, and, when asked, could not provide a report or an instance of a prisoner being caught smuggling drugs through newsprint. The tendency of newsprint to naturally become discolored over time makes it difficult to tell if the paper has been altered, Graves said.
Several news articles published in different states in the past year report of prisoners being caught with pieces of mail laced with Suboxone -- an opiate used to treat heroin addiction -- that can be ingested by chewing on the paper.
At the Pulaski County jail, the state's largest county jail, prisoners have been caught lacing mail and stamps with LSD, according to sheriff's office spokesman Capt. Carl Minden. The jail also bans clippings under a general policy against decorations in cells, which are intended for short-term incarcerations, Minden said.
Sheila Worthington, whose son Robert Worthington is incarcerated at the Randall L. Williams prison in Pine Bluff, was dismayed to hear that her son would likely not receive the recent newspaper clippings about a car accident that she sent him. However, she said, she would support the policy because her son is enrolled in the prison's Substance Abuse Treatment Program.
"We don't always know why they make their rules and regulations, but I guess they have their reasons," she said, adding that she has access to a copier at work.
"Publisher only" rules in prison are not new or unique to Arkansas, said Paul Wright, the editor of Prison Legal News, a publication of the Human Rights Defense Center, which advocates criminal justice issues. In the past 10 years, Wright said, he has seen a sharp increase in the number of prison policies restricting what materials can be sent to inmates.
"Just because they come up with a rationale behind it, doesn't mean it's going to hold up in court," Wright said.
In 2004, Nathaniel Lindell, an inmate in the Wisconsin Department of Corrections, was successful in challenging his prison's ban on clippings and photocopies of articles in a case that was decided by 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago. In the court's opinion, Circuit Judge Diane Wood wrote that Lindell "did not have an alternative means of exercising his rights."
Another legal issue that the policy presents, according to Tull, is that it may encourage a violation of copyright laws. While it's legal for someone to subscribe or buy a paper, cut out an article and send to a prisoner, making multiple copies for the purpose of distribution digs into the profits of publishers, Tull said.
"What concerns me is a policy that encourages that," he said.
Department of Correction rules regarding inmate property allow prisoners to subscribe to newspapers and magazines but limit the number of copies to three of each. More than that is considered "nuisance contraband" by the state prison system.
Newspapers and other publications can also be rejected if they contain nudity or sexually explicit messages, violence or other information deemed unfit for prisoners, according to department policy.
SundayMonday on 07/31/2016