Sunday, February 8, 2015

Do prisoners have rights?

That’s a good question.  It was asked by our attorney, as we discussed a decision by the Michigan Department of Corrections to stop all email communications between prisoners and me.  My big concern at the moment was rather selfish:  I was worrying about MY rights.

Truth be told, prisoners don’t have many rights.  The constitution says that they do, but just ask any inmate.  He/she will have a different story.

First I should explain how this email program works with prisoners.  Inmates are not allowed to just send out email messages at random.  They may only respond to people who have first sent an email message to them through a national program called JPay.  In other words, once I send an email message to a particular inmate, an account has then been established between the two of us.  That inmate may send an email message to me, and vice versa.  In either case, there is a fee involved.  It costs me 10 cents for every message.  Well worth it when you consider that it costs 5 times that much to send a letter by US Mail, and this is much faster.

This has been a valuable service provided by HFP, because we help prisoners with so many needs.  Can we get a legal opinion for them in a hurry?  No problem.  We cut and paste the attorney’s decision and email it to the inmate.  Can we find a long lost son or daughter, now married and living in another city?  No problem.  Matt conducts an on-line people search, and we forward the updated address to a grateful parent.  Will we review a commutation application before it gets sent to the Michigan Parole Board?  No problem.  The inmate sends a first draft to us in the mail…I quickly reply by email as to suggested corrections and additions.  Should a prisoner be getting medication of some sort for a given malady?  No problem.  We forward the symptoms to one of our consulting physicians, and then cut and paste the medical opinion for a quick response.  The list goes on and on. 

The prisoner, as we have said, also pays for this service.  So when this information is received by the inmate, it remains in that person’s mailbox for future reference.  He/she paid for the message.  It belongs to him/her.

Well, when the MDOC in its perceived almighty authority discontinued this service between HFP and Michigan inmates last week, it ALSO DELETED ALL PREVIOUS CORRESPONDENCE IN THEIR MAILBOXES!  In many cases this was important information.  In all cases it was data that had been paid for by the inmate and belonged to that prisoner.

As of this morning, HFP has nearly 500 inmates in the JPay account list.  As of this morning we are unable to communicate with any of them via email.  As of this morning, all prior messages from HFP in the mailboxes of inmates are gone. 

What a shameful disregard of the rights of prisoners.  A prisoner doesn’t have the right to receive assistance from a legitimate agency on the outside?  A prisoner is allowed to keep legal documents and personal correspondence in a locker, but is NOT allowed to retain email correspondence from HFP? 

Does all of this sound a little like the biblical story of David and Goliath?  The giant MDOC vs a little old 78-year-old man just trying to extend kindness to the “least of these?”  As I recall, David emerged the winner.

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