It’s disturbing to learn that the Maine Department of Corrections may severely limit outside communication by state prisoners as part of a package of proposed reforms to the system’s inmate discipline policy. What is clear is that the restrictions not only violate inmates’ free-speech rights but also contradict evidence-based practices in the field. What’s not obvious is how anyone – inside or outside the prison walls – would benefit from the changes.
The subject of a public hearing next week, the communications restrictions are frustratingly vague. It’s unclear whether they’d apply to all outside inmate correspondence, or just to prisoner contact with specific parties, like journalists or pen pals. And aside from a statement issued Tuesday, the department won’t discuss the proposed rules in detail until after the public comment period ends Nov. 6.
That’s too bad. We’d like to know why the state would set itself up for a legal challenge, given that separate federal rulings have upheld the right of prisoners to correspond with reporters and to write for news outlets under their own byline.
Not only do inmates have a constitutional right to communicate, but they also have a critical role in building momentum for changes in correctional systems, according to Zachary Heiden, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine.
“Centuries of prison reform have been based on prisoners’ accounts of their own imprisonment,” Heiden told the Portland Press Herald.
It’s also important to keep in mind that communication helps prepare prisoners for life in law-abiding society. Most inmates will eventually be released – and one of the proven ways to reduce the risk that they’ll re-offend is to allow them to stay in touch with relatives and others in the community that they will one day be rejoining.
Among the many articles that support this thesis is a 2012 piece in the journal Corrections Today, which found that an inmate who gets out of prison and has kept up ties with people to whom he’s accountable is far less likely to commit another crime than “those without positive supportive relationships.”
Mainers should be asking a lot of questions about the proposed rules changes – and if state corrections officials can’t make a good case for them as written, they should be willing to go back to the drawing board and produce something that’s humane and effective.