Monday, July 8, 2013

The Inmate Photo Ban and Reasoned Restrictions

Self-portrait drawn by Marcus Harrison at
the request of his mother Anita. Courtesy
the California Report.
There's an interesting and thought-provoking story in this morning's California Report about a prison regulation that prohibited photography.

For a quarter-century, California outlawed personal photographs for inmates held in isolation in special security housing units. Over the years, the restrictions affected thousands of inmates in four prisons: California State Prison, Corcoran; California Correctional Institution in Tehachapi; California State Prison, Sacramento; and Pelican Bay State Prison in Crescent City. While prison officials photographed the inmates for administrative purposes, those images were not passed on to families, making the men all but invisible to relatives living hundreds and even thousands of miles away. For years, prison staff defended the ban, contending that personal photographs were circulated by prison gang leaders as calling cards, both to advise other members that they're still in charge and to pass on orders. 

But after taking a closer look at the ban during a 2011 inmate hunger strike, top Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation officials determined it was not justified. Scott Kernan, who retired as undersecretary of corrections in 2011, said the stories of calling cards were isolated examples and the photo ban and other restrictions targeted inmates who were not breaking any rules. 

"I think we were wrong, and I think (that) to this day," he said. "How right is it to have an offender who is behaving ... (and) to not be able to take a photo to send to his loved ones for 20 years?" 

Kernan directed prison staff to ease the restrictions for inmates who were free of any disciplinary violations. 

Now, with hundreds of families receiving photos from relatives locked at Pelican Bay, some for the first time in decades, there is growing pressure on the corrections department to lift other restrictions and limit the amount of time inmates are locked in the controversial security units. 

I find this story fascinating for several reasons. First, this is probably not the only instance of a prison restriction lasting decades before being examined and questioned. Scott Kernan is to be commended for his willingness to reexamine the restriction. Second, and related, note the incident that prompted reexamining the regulation: The 2011 hunger strike. While CDCR was very intent in arguing that the changes it made to its SHU policies were unrelated to the strike, it is clear that organized, nonviolent action that received media attention (arguably too little) has actually had an impact on institutional policies.

Lifting the photo ban was not one of the strikers' five core demands. But it was a dated, unnecessary restriction that needed to be reexamined, and the hunger strike created the opportunity for prison authorities to reflect on its necessity.

The photo ban also illuminates the many aspects of segregation seldom addressed in the literature. The distance of Pelican Bay and Corcoran from many urban centers in California means that families seldom, or never, get to see their loved ones--to the point that children, siblings, parents and lovers may forget what their loved ones look like.

The success of the hunger strike that begins today remains to be seen. But this story highlights the possible gains from nonviolent action and is yet one more reminder why the strikers need our support.

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