Crime and Catalogs
Where our tax dollars go . . . The Illinois Department of Corrections spent most of last year in court arguing that statistics speak louder than words--even words that carry the force of law.
The statistics are appalling: In 1976 Illinois maintained 9 correctional centers housing about 8,000 adult felons. In 1992 23 correctional centers housed 29,000 adult felons.
This staggering increase can be mined for revelations about drugs, poverty, mandatory sentencing, and the general breakdown of society. But suffice it to say the Department of Corrections feels overburdened--and in this put-upon state of mind decided in 1986 to stop taking seriously a ten-year-old injunction.
The issue in 1976 was whether inmates could receive "publications" that weren't mailed to them directly by the publisher. The Department of Corrections said no and asked U.S. District Judge Frank McGarr (now retired) to agree. McGarr didn't. He ruled that the department's policy violated "the constitutional rights of inmates to reading material of their choice."
Corrections officials don't much like mail, and they look for reasons to limit it--the First Amendment be damned. Mail is litter, a nuisance, a way to smuggle in contraband. In this spirit of contrariness, the department in 1986 thumbed its nose at McGarr's decree by banning catalogs: "Committed persons in the Adult and Juvenile Divisions shall not be permitted to receive catalogs, except catalogs for books or periodicals."
Two summers ago we told the tale of a Chicago lawyer named Robert Allison who'd just won a court battle against the Cook County Department of Corrections. That fight was over hardbound books--the County Jail wouldn't accept them. The jail had sent back books written by Goethe, Schopenhauer, Fromm, and Kosinski.
The Hot Type describing Allison's triumph made its way to an inmate named George Peter Jr. at the Dixon Correctional Center. Peter is a convicted murderer. In 1967, when he was an 18-year-old stock clerk, he was charged with killing a 14-year-old girl on the north side of Chicago while awaiting trial for the rape of a 15-year-old girl in Winnetka. He's now serving a sentence of 90 to 180 years behind bars. His accomplishments in prison--13 years of study behind bars leading to a bachelor of arts--don't earn him our sympathy. They merely establish that he remains a human being.
Since 1986 Peter has been trying to regain the right to receive catalogs. First he filed a grievance, then a complaint in federal court, and eventually he wrote Howard Peters III, director of the Department of Corrections, to point out that the 1986 ban on catalogs violated McGarr's injunction. When Peters didn't answer the letter, Peter wrote us. We sent his letter on to Robert Allison.
On one side of the legal battle that followed was a felon whose crimes are despicable, on the other a stressed-out bureaucracy arguing absurdly that McGarr's ruling on "publications" somehow didn't mean catalogs. The Department of Corrections pleaded for sympathy. In an affidavit Howard Peters explained that allowing inmates to get catalogs "would impair security and create substantial administrative burdens."
Peters went on: "Cells at many correctional facilities are approximately 60 square feet, allowing 30 square feet per person, assuming double occupancy. The space is further diminished by beds and a toilet and sink. The average inmate possesses a considerable amount of personal property within this limited space, including among numerous other items, magazines, books, legal material, cosmetics and toiletries, clothing, commissary items, tv's, radios and typewriters. An accumulation of catalogs in addition to these materials would make it more difficult and time consuming for correctional officers to thoroughly search for contraband, particularly given the bulky nature of most catalogs. For example, the insides of bulky catalogs can easily be removed in order to attempt to camouflage drugs, small shanks or currency. . . . Inmates, particularly at maximum security facilities, frequently set fires. Inmates are also more likely to set fire to material which they have not paid for or consider disposable, such as catalogs."
Deputy Director Karl Becker embellished this gloomy tale. "The recently enacted Fiscal Year 1993 budget for the Department is nearly $18.5 million below the level originally sought by Governor Edgar in April, 1992," Becker's affidavit informed the court. "Due to budget shortfalls, 38 Central Office staff were laid off on September 1, 1992. . . . The opening of new prison beds has been deferred, general office operations reorganized and a hiring lag imposed for replacement staff.
"Increasing mailroom staff at all or a substantial number of adult facilities cannot be accomplished without displacing current staff, resulting in decreases in security and/or program staff. . . . As the Department projects an increase of nearly 2,000 adult inmates in the next year, reduction in such staff would result in potential decreases and adverse impact upon services and security."
Against such testimony, Allison offered irony, scholarship, and the clear meaning of language. He pointed out that a cocomplainant, Steve Jorgensen, had been denied a Roosevelt University course catalog and a Random House catalog of audiocassettes that included Nancy Reagan reading her My Turn and Magic Johnson his What You Can Do to Avoid AIDS. He observed in a brief: "Inmates are allowed to mail-order cassettes. But they are not allowed to receive catalogs from which to place their orders. Inmates who want books can receive catalogs for books. But inmates who want audio readings of the same titles on tape (sometimes because they cannot read), cannot receive catalogs by their authors of such titles on tape."
Allison submitted an affidavit from Joseph Cannon, a professor of penology and former Stateville warden, who testified that "the greater number of peaceful activities . . . the less difficulty there is to supervise, control, and get along with inmates. . . . Wider selection of books is particularly important in institutions suffering from overcrowding, as is increasingly the case, which has resulted in increasing amounts of cell-time and corresponding sensory deprivation, which can lead to psychotic behavior."
The presiding federal judge, Charles Kocoras, probably has faced tougher decisions choosing a pair of socks. "Unless we torture the English language, the defendants have violated the injunction order," he ruled last October. "Since torture is not permitted to be engaged in by sitting [federal] judges, I will not indulge it."
Kocoras ordered the department "to implement compliance with the injunction in good faith and as expeditiously as possible, but I will not set an arbitrary time limit." In late December Allison went back to court and told the judge that corrections was jerking him around. So Kocoras set a time limit--30 days. Allison told us this week that as far as he knows the state met it.
Presidential Approval Poll
Bill Clinton has been in office two whole weeks now. How do you fit into his new America? Confront your own reality with this personality profile.
1. On letting gays into the Army.
(a) I'd rather die by Saddam's sword.
(b) Makes me no nevermind who's protecting my ass.
2. On Zoe Baird.
(a) Arrogant hypocrite!
(b) If there's a Peruvian nanny pipeline operating, how do I get in on it?
3. On Clinton's middle-class tax cut.
(a) Everyone knew he was kidding.
(b) Everyone knew he was lying.
4. On Hillary Rodham Clinton.
(a) Rodham! Shame on her.
(b) Clinton! Shame on her.
Sympathy for the Schools
The Gail Sheehy award for insight beyond the call of journalism goes to Ann Gerber of the Lerner chain. "Suddenly parents are holier than thou and never, ever, leave their precious children home alone," Gerber wrote last week. "'Bad, bad, Schoos!' they cry, demanding punishment for a couple who left their daughters, 9 and 4, to fend for themselves. The older girl appeared self-sufficient, so give the Schoos a little credit . . . (It is obvious the anti-social behavior of mother Sharon might be rooted in the painful loss of beloved sister at age 16. Perhaps she retreated from investing emotionally in others she might lose.)"
We knew Paul Hogan only from watching him on Channel Five. Television calls its on-air personalities "talent" in much the way that ballet calls its dancers "boys and girls." But Hogan wasn't talent; he was a reporter. He broke big stories and presented himself on camera as the person his mourners tell us he was--someone thoughtful, scrupulous, and urbane. These qualities shouldn't have made him such a rarity on Chicago television, but they did.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.