Prison Pete

Friday, April 22, 2005
  A Reply to Michelle Malkin.
Ms. Malkin states:

"I thought the Zimmer amendment, which banned prison luxuries and has withstood constitutional challenges, was supposed to stop this nonsense. Maybe it's time for someone in Congress to update this law."

First of all, the Zimmer amendment only applies to Federal prisons. In this country we have the Federal Prison System for those who violate federal laws, residents of Washington, D.C., and most Native American Reservations. The remaining prisons and jails are run by the fifty states and the multitude of counties and cities throughout the United States.

While there may be some basic laws that all jails and prisons must follow, each system has its own rules and regulations.

For example, at the North Carolina State Prison in Raleigh, inmates are allowed one or two phone calls a year. In the New York State prison I am currently at, I can place phone calls seven days a week, from 8:00 AM to 11:00 PM. The calls can last up to one half hour, and are placed collect at a cost of around $9.00 for the full thirty minutes. The calls may only be placed to pre-approved numbers, and are subject to recording and direct monitoring by prison staff.

In the federal system, an inmate was limited to 300 minutes of calls per month. They could be pre-paid at a cost of 23ยข per minute or placed collect. At the particular Club Fed I was at, each call could be up to fifteen minutes in duration, and once you hung up the phone you could not place another call for sixty minutes. These calls were also monitored and taped. You also had to submit the phone numbers you wanted to be able to call to the staff for approval first.

The point of explaining the various methods is to show how there is not just one way things are done in prison. It is important, in my humble opinion, that all prisoners be able to tell what their life is like on the inside, so as to allow the public to separate fact from fiction.

Even the federal laws governing basic treatment for all prisons and jails in the United States must often be fought for by the prisoners themselves in the courts before they are enforced. Think about Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.

Of the more than two million persons currently incarcerated in the United States, only 170,000 are in Federal Prisons.

The federal inmates are the only people directly affected by bills passed by the United States Congress. Is micro-managing the day to day existence of prisoners a worthy expenditure of effort?

There have been two major amendments passed in the 1990's that applied to the life of a federal prisoner. It is my contention that these amendments were passed more for political bragging rights than any actual need to become involved in the day to day existence of prisoners.

The fact that Ms. Malkin was under the impression that just one of these amendments cut out luxuries for all prisoners shows it had its intended effect. I would have hoped Ms. Malkin, as a journalist, would be better informed on the scope and actual effect the Zimmer amendment had.

The 1995 Zimmer amendment basically was added to some other piece of federal legislation and banned the use of any kind of electronic musical instruments inside the federal prison system. Prior to this ruling, inmates were allowed to own their own instrument, paid for with their own personal funds.

Some recreation departments may have also had some electronic instruments. Recreation equipment was usually purchased using funds from profits generated by use of the inmate telephone system and money spent by inmates at the commissary. A suit was brought about this ruling applying to the Chapel Departments. It was decided that it did not, so the prison chapels were allowed to have electronic musical instruments.

The second amendment was known as the Enson Amendment. It prohibited the use of any federal funds to buy or distribute any nude pictures of humans. It was supposed to ban pornography from the prisons. Again, this only applied to federal prisons. The net effect of this was that magazines such as Playboy, which were paid for by inmates or their families, were now prohibited simply because they had to pass through the prison mailroom and be handed out by the correction officers at mail call.

Since it is federal dollars that pay the salaries of the mailroom personnel, they could not legally handle Playboy. This ruling has made FHM and Maxim two of the most popular magazines in federal prisons.

The second part of the Enson bill was that the prison system was forbidden from showing any movie that carried an R or X rating. The weekend movies shown in all federal facilities had to carry PG or PG-13 ratings.

The New York State system allows the showing of R rated movies and I just watched "Hotel Rwanda", a very powerful movie. This movie, along with Schindler's List, can not be shown in a federal prison.

Both of these issues could have just as easily been handled by regular Department of Justice rule making authority, and did not require "an act of Congress" as the saying goes.

A third example of Congress putting forth meaningless bills just to obtain some political capital is the annual attempt to increase the current good time allotment from fifteen percent to thirty-five percent.

I am not sure at what point the current fifteen percent good time allowance was enacted. Every year I was in Federal prison, without fail excitement would sweep through the entire prison with yet another attempt to increase the good time. I finally caught on to the reason this was an annual occurrence.

Each year the House of Representatives would introduce legislation increasing the good time available to federal prisoners, from the current fifteen percent to thirty-five percent. I can only assume the poor House member forced to put his or her name on the initial bill either had no possible opposition come election time or was so low on the totem pole she or he had no choice. The bill would be introduced on the floor, and promptly voted down.

Obviously, it was never going to pass. Yet each year the House members could send home to all their constituents how they were tough on crime and put a stop to a bill that would have let prisoners out after serving only sixty-five percent of their sentence. It is a non-news news story. Yet it seems that the American public buys the myth.

I know a lot of the federal prisoners certainly got their hopes up each and every year. I am not sure exactly how many times in the last ten years this bill has been introduced, but I would like to know if someone is able to search the Congressional Record and verify that the bill has been introduced several times in the last ten years.

This long winded post is meant to show that Ms. Malkin was off base in her comments. The Zimmer Amendment is a lot narrower in scope on two counts. The first being it only applied to Federal Prisons. Now either Ms. Malkin did not know that basic piece of information or she neglected to read my blog or my profile to discover that I am not currently a federal prisoner.

The second point is that the amendment dealt pretty explicitly with electronic musical instruments and not "luxuries" of prisoners.

I rest my case or at least my poor fingers for a little bit.
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