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Attorneys Criticize Proposed Limits on Legal Visits to Inmates


SACRAMENTO — Proposed changes to visiting rules at state prisons would limit inmates' access to legal help and reduce public knowledge about conditions within the penal system, lawyers for convicts say.

The changes were released last week by the Department of Corrections and are not yet final. A spokeswoman, Terry Thornton, said the public has until Aug. 9 to submit comments on the proposal.

The department characterized the new rules as an effort to conform its policies to guidelines set by the State Bar of California. But critics disputed that reasoning and said the proposed regulations would infringe on inmates' right to legal representation in a variety of ways.

The most troubling change, they say, would bar lawyers from sending a representative to consult with inmates unless that emissary was a licensed investigator or professional paralegal.

Because prisons are in remote locations, making visits time consuming, most groups that provide legal help to the incarcerated rely on interns, volunteers or law students to interview inmates.

The new rules would largely end that practice. They would permit a law student to interview prisoners, but only if accompanied by an attorney--a requirement many of the nonprofit legal aid organizations say they could not afford to meet.

"These rules would completely cripple us," said Cynthia Chandler of Justice Now, a Bay Area organization providing legal aid to women in prison. "We are a small nonprofit with only two staff attorneys, and we rely heavily on students to help us do this work."

Chandler and others also object to a proposed rule requiring a lawyer to declare one of four purposes in visiting an inmate. The attorney would have to be the inmate's lawyer of record; be fulfilling a judicial request; be representing an inmate in a legal proceeding; or be consulting for possible future representation.

Critics say that list excludes many legitimate reasons for their visits, from interviewing a possible witness to helping inmates with wills or merely inquiring about prison conditions.

"The effect of this will be to limit access to what's going on inside," said Steve Fama, a lawyer with the nonprofit Prison Law Office, which has successfully sued the department over medical care, mental health treatment and other issues over the years.

Thornton, the Department of Corrections spokeswoman, said it is not the state's intent to limit access and urged critics to submit their comments for review.

"These proposed regulations are not carved in stone," she said. "The department has always supported visiting and sees the value of it to inmates. The purpose of these changes is simply to bring consistency to our regulations throughout the system."

The proposed changes are the first overhaul to visiting rules since the late 1980s. An initial draft was released earlier this year and created an uproar then--but for a different reason.

That document included new rules for family visits. One sought to bar children older than 7 from sitting on male inmates' laps, while another specified that a kiss or embrace could last no longer than five seconds. A third required photo identification for children over 7.

Corrections Director Edward Alameida scrapped those proposals and several others after the department received more than 2,000 critical comments.

The latest proposal makes few changes to family visits but includes the new rules for legal visits. Thornton said those were added in response to input from lawyers who said the prison regulations did not conform to state bar rules.

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