Archive for June, 2009


This week the Supreme Court ruled that prisoners do not have a constitutional right to obtain DNA testing that might prove their innocence if they have already been convicted. In a 5-4 decision, the court majority ruled that allowing prisoners the right to postconviction testing would undermine the finality of a conviction and the justice system’s accuracy. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote:

[DNA has an] unparalleled ability both to exonerate the wrongly convicted and to identify the guilty… [but] to suddenly constitutionalize this area would short-circuit what looks to be a prompt and considered legislative response.

This was clearly a difficult decision for the justices as evidenced by the close final ruling. On one hand, justices voting in the majority like Samuel A. Alito Jr. argued that any defendant “could demand DNA testing in the hope that some happy accident — for example, degradation or contamination of the evidence — would provide the basis for seeking postconviction relief.” However, in a compelling rejoinder, dissenting justice John Paul Stevens wrote that states would have nothing to lose if defendants offered to pay for testing themselves.

While the Court’s decision came as a blow to prisoners’ rights advocates, it was a small one. According to the Innocence Project, an organization that works to obtain DNA testing for wrongfully convicted individuals, the impact of the decision is “limited… because most prisoners obtain access to DNA testing at the state level.” Chief Justice Roberts emphasized this reality in his opinion, writing that “federal courts may upset a State’s postconviction relief procedures only if they are fundamentally inadequate to vindicate the substantive rights provided.” In other words, since the defendant, William G. Osborne, was initially offered DNA testing but his lawyer turned it down for fear of further incriminating her client, Osborne’s due process rights were not violated, so the Court would not intervene on his behalf.

As of today, 46 states have laws that allow defendants access to DNA evidence. The Innocence Project reports that there have been 240 post-conviction DNA exonerations in the United States, 17 of whom were death row inmates. In 140 of those cases, DNA testing revealed the actual perpetrator.

Despite these startling figures in favor of postconviction DNA testing, many prosecutors are still trying to deny defendants access to it. According to the New York Times, in several states prosecutors are using eyewitness accounts and other evidence to keep defendants in jail, even when defendants offer to pay for the test themselves (which costs about $300-$400).

Arguably, DNA testing is a complicated issue that is not guaranteed to establish anyone’s innocence– for example, in cases where there are multiple suspects, test results may only show that there is an additional perpetrator instead of proving any particular suspect’s innocence. However, the cost of only a few hundred dollars is well worth it when you consider the price in years and quality of life paid by individuals who are wrongly convicted (the Innocence Project estimates that the average amount of time spent in prisons by exonerees is 12 years). If states are unwilling to pay for postconviction testing, there are numerous groups that would raise money for this relatively inexpensive test, not to mention defendants who use their own resources.

Click here to read about Charles Chatman, who was freed from prison after 26 years when DNA testing proved him innocent of rape.

Click here to learn more about the Innocence Project and its work.


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ff_prisonphones2_fIf one thing can be said about prisons, it’s that they perform their main function very well–it is extremely difficult for prisoners to contact the outside world. There are numerous restrictions on both the communication that can reach prisoners and what they’re allowed to send out. From personal letters to magazines, every piece of mail sent to a prisoner is thoroughly inspected to ensure it meets prison standards for decency and appropriateness, which are often arbitrarily set or unreasonable. For example, prisoner subscriptions to periodicals are strictly monitored; magazines must come directly from publishers and are often withheld from prisoners if officials disapprove of content. Many prisoners complain of not receiving issues from mainstream periodicals that are free of pornographic, political, or weapon-related content. In addition, according to the Prison Book Censorship Program, inmates are generally not allowed to receive books from individuals, only from organizations, which limits the ability for friends and family members to send reading material to loved ones on the inside. With few educational or recreational activities available in prison, most inmates would benefit greatly from regular access to reading materials that keep them informed of the world from which they have been cut off.

In a recent article for Wired magazine, Vince Beiser describes how some prisoners have found a new way to reestablish contact with the outside– by smuggling in cell phones. Telephones are generally not available to prisoners, so many inmates pay large sums to guards and other individuals to bring prepaid cell phones illicitly into prisons. Beiser notes that though some serious crimes have been coordinated from prison using cell phones, the majority of inmates smuggle in cell phones in order to contact their loved ones. As Beiser puts it:

Whatever their crimes, most convicts have parents, children, and others they’re desperate to stay in touch with. Letters are slow, and personal visits often involve expensive, time-sucking travel. Some prisons have public phones for making collect calls, but access is limited, conversations are often monitored, and phone companies often charge much higher rates than on the outside.

Beiser suggests that instituting permanent landlines in prisons would help  reduce recidivism as inmates who maintain regular contact with family members are less likely to return to prison. Ironically enough, some prisons are now installing landline phones in prisons while keeping cell phone bans in place in an attempt to reduce recidivism and its associated costs (even though crimes are arguably just as easily conducted from a landline as a cellphone).

Regardless of the logic, prisoners should be allowed regular phone calls to their family members, as well as unfettered access to books and magazines that do not contain harmful or hateful content (such as a book with bomb-making instructions or an anti-Semitic publication). Imprisonment should not mean that inmates lose the right to educate, inform, and entertain themselves through books and periodicals; since one of the alleged goals of prisons is rehabilitation, this right should be honored foremost by prison officials. In addition, the separation of families is a painful process that could be ameliorated by telephone contact with loved ones.

For a list of prisoner publications that have a good success rate reaching prisoners, click here. If you’d like to support the Prison Book Program, click here.

**Update: July 15, 2009– Senator Kay Hutchison (R-TX) has introduced the Safe Prisons Communications Act, which would allow corrections officials to petition the FCC to jam cell phone signals coming from banned mobile devices in prisons. This unprecedented act of communications interference means that 1) it will become even more difficult and expensive for prisoners to contact loved ones and 2) prisons are continuing to fail to meet the needs of inmates by improving existing communications options.
A better alternative for inmates: supporting the Family Telephone Connection Protection Act, which would regulate maximum charges on telephone calls by inmates and force correctional institutions to offer more service providers. (Sign the petition here.)
Click here to tell your Representatives to vote YES on the Family Telephone Connection Protection Act.
Click here to tell your Senator to vote NO on the Safe Prisons Communication Act. **

Photo © Andrew Hetherington

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