BY MIKE CETERA
Defense attorneys aren't likely to garner any sympathy over cries that cops are reading their clients' mail. But Kathleen Colton's objection during the first cold-case murder trial about revelations the Kane County Jail has been opening mail for years raises some interesting questions.
Is it legal for jail guards to pilfer inmates' letters? Is there an expectation of privacy among inmates? Should law-abiding citizens care either way?
Here's what Colton had to say about her client, Jose Salinas: "I don't know how much more obvious this could be that this violates Mr. Salinas' rights. You don't give up your rights when you're incarcerated."
Here's what Kane County Sheriff's Office Lt. Pat Gengler said: "By virtue of being in custody they give up certain things. If they don't want to have their phone calls listened to, their mail opened, their visits monitored, they should make a different choice in life."
From what I could find, opening inmates' mail is a fairly common and apparently accepted practice throughout the U.S. But that doesn't mean it's not controversial. I'm not sure how far Colton can or will take this, but here's what's important for all of us to remember: all of our freedoms can become endangered when constitutional rights for some are whittled away, particularly when people don't have a chance to debate actions taken by the government to take away those rights.
Find some links on the issue below:
* The American Law and Legal Information Web site raises some interesting points about what does and does not constitute a violation of prisoners constitutional rights:
Common sense would seem to dictate that prisoners should have fewer rights than people on the outside; otherwise prison would not be prison. Lack of freedom of movement, for instance, is a defining factor of prison. Likewise prisoners forfeit certain civil rights, such as the right to vote; a number of property rights (e.g. the warden might prevent a prisoner from receiving a gift of a gold watch for fear that his wearing the watch might encourage theft); the right to privacy with regards to his mail (though unreasonable censorship or restriction is unconstitutional); free speech (e.g., the prisoner cannot call for protests against the prison administration); and other rights. (emphasis added)
* In Colorado Springs, Colo., two employees sort through incoming mail "opening envelopes to check for contraband and removing the glue and stamp, (El Paso County Sheriff Terry) Maketa said. Letters also can be read if there are security concerns."
* The city of Santa Ana, Calif., posts its inmate mail policy online: "All mail is subject to search. Inmate non-legal mail will be scanned prior to delivery."
* In Sante Fe County, New Mexico, "every single piece of mail is searched, except those from the inmates' lawyers," according to the Albuquerque Journal . The searches are conducted, in part, to combat drug smuggling into the jail.
* The Witchita (Kansas) Eagle wrote a story earlier this year about what prison guards routinely find in inmates' mail:
The prison staffers who check inmate's mail are sometimes overcome by the smell of perfume. "Some people get carried away with spraying their letters," said Capt. Dale Call, public information officer for the El Dorado Correctional Facility, where Rader and Carr are inmates.
Prison mail checks also turn up pornography, drugs and even plans for making weapons, Call said. "We don't allow Polaroid pictures, because they can make an incision in the back and insert contraband."
Most of the time, such photos are intercepted in the mail room and confiscated.