Prisoner Rights, Wrongs

Posted Sept. 07, 2008, at 7:58 p.m.

A federal lawsuit filed by a Maine state prisoner raises difficult questions about constitutional rights and the nature of incarceration.

The prisoner, Deane Brown, was serving a 58-year sentence in the Maine State Prison in Warren for a series of burglaries, thefts and robberies. For nine months in 2006 he regularly telephoned the host of a Saturday morning program on Rockland’s low-frequency radio station, WRFR-FM. The host put him on the air to report on problems, as perceived from the prisoner’s perspective, within the facility.

According to Lynne Williams, a Bar Harbor attorney who took on Mr. Brown’s case, prison officials did not oppose the regular radio appearances, even though they were largely critical. On the show, Mr. Brown alleged, among other things, that mental health services were lacking, that some guards were abusive and had even goaded some prisoners to commit suicide.

Mr. Brown apparently crossed a line when a guard, who sympathized with prisoner complaints, provided Mr. Brown with a copy of a letter he wrote to supervisors, criticizing the institution. In the fall of 2006 Mr. Brown forwarded the letter to the radio station, which then posted it on its Web site.

Prison officials wrote a cease and desist letter to Mr. Brown, attorney Williams said, and asserted that prisoners cannot serve as “news correspondents.” But according to Ms. Williams, existing federal case law establishes the right of prisoners to serve in this role. Officials then blocked prison phones from being able to call the radio station, and Mr. Brown was quickly transferred to a prison in Maryland.

An e-mail written by prison officials, which Ms. Williams obtained under the Freedom of Information law, showed officials wanted Mr. Brown out of the state “within 24 hours” of his disclosure of the guard’s letter, Ms. Williams said.

The lawsuit charges that prison officials, including Corrections Commissioner Martin Magnusson, denied Mr. Brown his First Amendment right to speech. Federal Magistrate Margaret Kravchuk denied a motion by the commissioner to remove him from the suit.

Phone privileges for prisoners is not a clear-cut issue, Ms. Williams admits. Just as high school students do not have rights to privacy over the contents of their lockers, prisoners do not have rights to telephone anyone they want. Individual prisons have what Ms. Williams said is “penalogical discretion” on such matters. Clearly, prisoners should not have 24-hour access to phones, nor should they be able to call their victims or harass those who arrested them.

But corrections officials generally agree that maintaining prisoners’ ties to their communities — family, friends, clergy — decreases the odds of them re-offending.

And the most likely whistle blower for prison abuse is a prisoner.

“The only way the public will know if prisons are operating in a safe, legal and constitutional way is if prisoners have the same constitutional rights as the rest of us,” said Zachary Heiden, an attorney with the Maine Civil Liberties Union. Curtailing those rights, “when it would be embarrassing to the prison,” he added, does not seem to be a reasonable use of prison discretion.

Final disposition of the suit should shed some light on these matters.

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