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State Politicians Take Aim at Inmates' Bill of Rights : Corrections: Anti-crime fervor may doom the statute signed by Reagan. It allows conjugal visits and lets prisoners wear their hair at any length.

May 01, 1994|DAN MORAIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — On the floor of the upper house, a senator launches into a harangue about Charles Manson profiting off his murderous crimes by selling song lyrics and demands repeal of the statute that would allow such an outrage.

As he campaigns for office, an assemblyman lambastes Manson follower Tex Watson, charging that the same statute gave Watson the right to conjugal visits with his wife, during which he fathered three children while in prison.

The focus of the politicians' ire is the "inmates bill of rights," a statute dating back to Ronald Reagan's tenure as governor.

In a year when baseball analogies are used as answers to crime, the inmates bill of rights is a hanging curve--and politicians are slamming it up and down the state. It has become the stuff of sound bites, headlines and talk shows.

With Gov. Pete Wilson's support, lawmakers are working to rid the state penal code of a law they say allows imprisoned child molesters, rapists and murderers to receive hard-core pornography, wear their hair as they choose, and sue over such slights as food that is too high in cholesterol.

But lawyers for prisoners, and some state lawyers, have doubts that the statute's repeal will end many of the most often cited abuses. Court decisions in recent decades have affirmed that many prisoners' rights are protected by the U.S. Constitution.

The reasons behind the impending demise of the inmates bill of rights are many, some tied to the campaign season.

Wilson, seeking reelection on an anti-crime platform, has made the statute's repeal a priority. Two bills to do away with the statute are being carried by Assemblyman Dean Andal (R-Stockton) and state Sen. Robert Presley (D-Riverside). They are running against each other for a State Board of Equalization seat.

But the movement to gut the statute goes beyond electioneering. The prison guards union, an aggressive and well-financed lobby in Sacramento, is supporting the repeal effort, as are crime victims groups.

As the prison population grows beyond 120,000 inmates, California Department of Corrections officials say it is more costly to provide benefits required by the bill of rights, such as the right of mentally ill prisoners to have court hearings before they are forced to take antipsychotic drugs.

Department of Corrections attorney Pam Smith-Steward also fears that in time, courts could interpret the statute so broadly that the 7,000 prisoners who work for the Prison Industry Authority making blue jeans, furniture, license plates and other products could receive minimum wage of $4.25. As it is, they make an average of 55 cents an hour.

Buried 586 pages deep in the California Penal Code, the inmates bill of rights is brief, only 52 words. In a single paragraph, it says that a person sentenced to prison arrives with the same rights as everyone else. Any narrowing of rights must be directly related to the prison's safe operation, and be the least restrictive alternative possible.

A companion statute lists prisoners' specific rights, among them, the right to marry, make wills, correspond confidentially with lawyers, own property and receive publications.

Prisoner rights lawyers say most of the rights listed in the statutes are guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. But state lawyers say court rulings have forced California to give prisoners far more than is required by federal law.

"The (California) law says we may only restrict inmate rights if we can show a security link," Smith-Steward said. "It isn't right. It's insidious."

Although California is the only state with an inmates bill of rights, many states give prisoners rights beyond what is required by the U.S. Constitution. New York allows conjugal visits. Oregon pays prison workers minimum wages.

The origins of the inmates bill of rights date to Reagan's first term as governor. Red Nelson, then the nail-hard warden of San Quentin, recalls approaching Reagan at a reception early in 1967. As they chatted, Reagan asked Nelson what he thought of one of the issues of the day: Should inmates be granted overnight visits with their spouses?

It was an innovative concept. Some prison officials believed that the program would end homosexuality in prisons, and serve as a reward for good behavior.

"I thought it was a horrendous idea," Nelson said, and he recalls telling the governor so.

Reagan did not take Nelson's counsel. In 1968, he authorized conjugal visits as an experiment at one prison, and allowed prison officials to expand the policy systemwide in 1971.

"We were in a period where people thought they're not bad boys," Nelson said. "That was the style. There was no stopping it."

In 1968, state Sen. Alan Sieroty, a liberal from Los Angeles' Westside, teamed up with the Friends Committee on Legislation, a Quaker lobbying organization, and proposed the legislation that first came to be known as the inmates bill of rights.

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