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Senate Votes to Repeal Inmate 'Bill of Rights' : Penal system: Targeted privileges include receipt of pornography and racist writings. Assembly may temper action.

April 08, 1994|CARL INGRAM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — The state Senate voted overwhelmingly Thursday to repeal the "bill of rights" for state prison inmates, a reform enacted nearly 20 years ago that critics assert grants criminals too many privileges.

Targeted for repeal by the Senate bill are privileges that allow inmates to receive, produce and sell pornography and to receive racist writings.

Families of prisoners fear that conjugal and other personal visits with prisoners would be jeopardized by the legislation. Supporters of repeal say that is not their intent, noting that visitation rights are an important tool for managing prison tensions.

"Visiting, for the most part, will not be affected," said the author, Sen. Robert B. Presley (D-Riverside). He noted that prisoners would continue to have the protection of the federal and state constitutions.

A 30-1 vote sent the bill to the Assembly, where some of its provisions may be tempered to conform more closely to federal standards.

A bill similar to Presley's, by Assemblyman Dean Andal (R-Stockton), which had been diluted in committee, awaits a vote on the Assembly floor. Gov. Pete Wilson has endorsed both election-year proposals as part of his program to get tougher on criminals.

Echoing the complaints of crime victims, Presley said inmate privileges that were written into California law during the mid-1970s go beyond rights contained in the state or federal constitutions.

These include the right to sell real estate or personal property, including "written and artistic" materials. Prisoners also may buy, receive, read and share with others publications acceptable to the Postal Service. Additionally, they are assured of the "civil right" to personal visits.

Crime victims organizations contend that the bill of rights law extends special privileges to criminals who have denied fundamental human rights to their victims. They deplore conjugal visits as "sex at taxpayer expense."

But Sen. Diane Watson (D-Los Angeles) argued that the repeal was too sweeping. She said she supports outlawing "onerous businesses" and pornography in prison, but argued against a wholesale rejection of the law.

"Prisoners perform better when they are allowed to have contact with their loved ones," said Watson, who did not vote. She warned that denying inmates "minimum human rights" while they are locked up could jeopardize public safety when they are released.

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