The Corner

Re: Two Questions for Andy McCarthy

As we wait for Andy McCarthy to check back in, readers are providing me with an education—not a happy education, but an education.

From a reader who writes from experience:

Hello, Mr. Robinson,

I can comment on this issue… A member of my immediate family has served two prison terms, one of 15 years in the California state penal system, during which he spent time in three different facilities, including San Quentin, and another of roughly eighteen months duration in county jail in another state.

Operating from and within jail is simple in many respects. First of all, as a general rule even the worst offenders routinely receive visitors: family members, friends, and lawyers. For the career criminal or gang member, these folks can act as conduits to criminal associates outside, “on the streets” as they say, and can also smuggle in drugs and other contraband that is used by the inmate, or sold or traded within the prison… there’s always this kind of sick joke about how all the best drugs are easiest to obtain on the “inside.”

Corrupt corrections officers also act as go-betweens to the outside world and smuggle in money, drugs, and even weapons… while my relative was in the California system there was a series of scandals at the Corcoran facility that had a lot of us wondering who were the worst criminals, the guards or the inmates. (According to my relative, a couple of FBI agents investigating the corruption there were actually chased up Hwy. 99 by a carload of corrections officers after leaving the grounds of the prison… pretty bold action, going after federal agents like that.)

Inmates can have at least occasional access to telephones, also, especially in county facilities. It is generally assumed that their calls are monitored, but this is not always the case. And when they are, it’s easy enough to talk about criminal activities in private code… where there’s a will to communicate, there’s a way. This is especially easy in written communications also, which, given the sheer volume of inmate mail in and out of a prison and limited staff, are very hard to monitor. Even when a particular prisoner is being kept under close scrutiny, he can easily communicate through another inmate who is receiving visitors or has phone access….

Bottom line is, even in “supermax” facilities such as California’s Pelican Bay prison, the worst offenders can participate in criminal activities within and without the system because at the very least they have some contact with other inmates, they can write and often phone outside, and they have access to their lawyer(s). The only way to totally cutoff his participation would be to hold someone entirely incommunicado… that can be done for short periods of time (along the lines of the old “thirty days in the hole”), but it’s basically impossible to shut any individual completely down for an entire prison term.

From a reader who spent time observing life on the inside:

Years ago I worked on the film, “Malcolm X”; part of the film was shot at the prison in Rahway, New Jersey, a maximun security jail for life and long-term sentencees….

We got to know the guards who were constantly with us well; they told us the prison could not operate without the supply of drugs that came to the inmates in packages from the outside. The inmates receive their packages only at the beginning of each month, some packages are inspected, most are not. Towards the end of the month, the drugs start to dry up, and hostile behavior by the inmates increases commensurate with the decreasing supply….The guards were emphatic that without illegal drugs to pacify the population, the place would be a hell on earth, and absolutely impossible to control.

Finally, this item, from a reader who signs himself “a curious liberal,” unaware, evidently, that the very suggestion he makes here was also made by, among a number of other conservatives, Milton Friedman and William F. Buckley, Jr:

Here’s a thought – how about releasing non-violent drug offenders so   

the corrections institutions can concentrate every ounce of their   

resources on the people who are the reason we invented jail in the   

first place?

Peter Robinson — Peter M. Robinson is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution.

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