Papered Over | Ex-Context | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Papered Over

Supreme Court ruling conceals real agenda

Before its summer vacation began, the Supreme Court made the safe choice and decided to allow the PA Department of Corrections to continue denying newspapers to its most incorrigible guests. Prison officials wouldn't want anybody getting any ideas.

The court handed down its decision in the case of Beard v. Banks on June 28. Ronald Banks, a prisoner in SCI-Fayette's torture chamber (a.k.a. Long Term Segregation Unit), challenged the state policy of withholding magazines and newspapers to certain convicts, purportedly to get them to behave.

Back in November, the Supreme Court agreed to review a lower-court ruling that prison officials had failed to show that the policy had any effect on inmate behavior, or that inmates had misused newspapers to start fires or throw feces at guards. Shortly afterward I opined that the policy's claims to serve "legitimate penological interests" didn't pass the smell test.

Throwing feces at guards is a time-honored tradition in hard-core seg units. (At one out-of-state penitentiary, they tried to solve this problem by putting feces-throwers on liquid diets, rendering their feces less serviceable as projectiles. It didn't work until guards took their coffee cups away too.) But I admit that, at the time, I wasn't thinking about feces except in the broadest figurative sense.

Prison officials argued that some convicts allowed toothpaste to harden inside rolled-up newspapers, which they then used as clubs. I had to try this one at home, and I can report that toothpaste, even in its hardened state, makes a lousy club. It's not nearly as effective a weapon as a bar of soap in a pillowcase, or one of those steel-toed prison brogans that the feds make everybody wear. As for the argument that newspapers could be used as fuel for fires, the nastiest fires in seg are caused by guys setting their mattresses aflame.

Why not just come clean? People on both sides of the bars will appreciate the candor. This ruling is about giving prison officials a green light to mistreat the people who piss them off. And that's exactly how prison officials are going to interpret it. With this ruling, you can now add "… except for convicts, drug dealers and accused terrorists" to every one of the amendments in the Bill of Rights. The Supreme Court, it seems, has validated abridgements of the Constitution, as long as they can be vaguely construed as necessary for encouraging better behavior among convicts.

In her dissent, Ruth Bader Ginsburg characterized the connection between regulation and goal in this case to be "too tenuous to be plausible." That is, of course, beside the point. And now that the Supreme Court has taken the gloves off, I say that it's time to quit pussyfooting around.

If convicts want to whine about their newspapers, let them have the papers — but turn the lights off. See how they like that. My personal experience with light therapy in the "Hannibal Lecter" suite of the old Allegheny County Jail was telling. A couple of weeks under a 1,500-watt light in a 6-by-10-feet chickenwire-lined cell taught me to keep my opinion of the lock-up's accommodations to myself.

But these guys in seg are incorrigibles. If a couple of weeks without light only makes them say ugly things about guard's mothers and throw feces around like a bunch of monkeys, then don't just put them on a liquid diet — put them on a no-food diet. You can rest assured that they'll cut it out then.

I figure that there's a chance that this Supreme Court will expand this ends-justify-the-means interruption of the Constitution. Maybe it will be spurred by the War on Drugs or the War on Terror. Or maybe the War against Communism will make a comeback. More likely there will be a new war on something that only people in think tanks know about now. Then maybe we'll be able to get down to business, and summarily hang all second offenders and shoot illegal immigrants right off the fence they're building on the border.

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