CARTHAGE, Mo. —
A ban on newspapers for inmates at the Jasper County Jail is being questioned by the American Civil Liberties Union.
The organization has sent a letter to Bill Fleischaker, attorney for Sheriff Archie Dunn, asserting that the prohibition violates the constitutional rights of inmates. The Globe’s attempts to obtain comment from Dunn on Wednesday and Thursday were unsuccessful.
“The letter basically states that a total newspaper ban is totally unconstitutional,” said Michelle Cocayne, a law clerk with the ACLU.
The practice was questioned earlier by the organization, and sheriff’s Capt. Becky Stevens, who supervises the jail, responded that the ban was imposed to prevent fights that have broken out in the jail because of articles in the newspaper, and because jail officials didn’t want inmates reading articles about jail problems and plans for jail improvements.
Fleischaker said the department imposed the ban because of security concerns. He said he will work in coming weeks with jail officials, review issues cited in the letter “and see if there is an accommodation that can be made.”
He said newspaper articles about investigations, court testimony and charges including sex offenses can provoke fights in the jail. And, he said officials don’t want inmates reading about repairs planned for the jail, including work on locks that can be unlocked by inmates.
Fleischaker said the ACLU is claiming that the start of work on a jail repair project removes that issue as a justification for the ban. He said he disagrees, adding, “I don’t think it’s that far along.”
The ban, which applies to all newspapers that might be received by inmates, is described as “draconian” in a letter from Doug Bonney, chief counsel and legal director for the ACLU of Kansas and Western Missouri.
“We don’t know of any other jail in Missouri that bans all newspapers; they don’t do that in the prisons,” Bonney said Wednesday. “And not all the newspapers are going to have local news about individual cases.”
An alternative, he said, would be for inmates to be allowed to have a newspaper after jail officials “clip out and censor the relatively rare news articles that post a true danger to jail security.”
“Anywhere that a total ban has been litigated, it has been found unconstitutional,” Bonney said.
It would be too much of a drain on jail resources, Fleischaker said, for a jail worker to read through newspapers and censor them before they are passed out to inmates.
Stevens, the jail supervisor, agreed.
“Years ago, we did that,” she said. “It’s just too time-consuming, and it causes grievances from inmates because they don’t know what’s been clipped.”
While the ban applies to all newspapers, Fleischaker said his conversations with Bonney have involved only The Joplin Globe.
Sheriff Ken Copeland said newspapers are not banned at the Newton County Jail, but jail workers will clip out stories “if there’s something about child molesters or we see something there we think will cause a riot.”
Inmates are not allowed to watch the local news on jail television sets, Copeland said.
“It’s not unusual for us to allow a newspaper if they want one,” he said. “But we don’t leave it in there, because you can get them wet and harden them to make weapons.”
The ban in the Jasper County Jail was imposed last year, Stevens said. She said it applies to all newspapers, but Joplin Globe and Carthage Press subscriptions accounted for most of the deliveries.
“Some families have bought subscriptions for inmates, but I don’t think we’ve ever had more than four or five newspapers being delivered here at one time,” she said. “We started it (the ban) when there started being a lot of coverage about the jail and failing equipment.”
The jail also had a ban on local TV news during a time when there was frequent coverage on plans for jail repairs, Stevens said.
“It’s been lifted, but we’d impose it again if we needed to,” she said. “If a news crew came through the jail to do a story, we’d cut TV for that night.”
CAPT. BECKY STEVENS, who supervises the jail operation, said contractors are making plans for improvements at the jail, but the repair projects have not started.