by John W. Whitehead
During 1998, the United States executed more prisoners than any other country in the world, with the exception of China, Iran and Saudi Arabia. Rather than being appalled, the public is widely supportive of this final act of punishment. Gallup polls have shown that, in the thirty years from 1966 to 1996, public approval of capital punishment has risen from 42 percent to 79 percent. The public's support has been reflected in recent legislation and case law that make it easier for courts to sentence criminals to death--and harder for the convicted to appeal.
A Supreme Court decision this past week in Jones v. United States threw up another hurdle by limiting the grounds on which death row prisoners could appeal their sentences. Jones, who was convicted of kidnapping and killing a female Air Force private, was given the death penalty. Jones appealed his death sentence, claiming that the judge's instructions erroneously implied to jurors that--unless they agreed on the death penalty--he could receive less than a life sentence and possibly one day walk free. The Court determined that even if the jury was confused, this was not harmful to Jones' defense or to his rights.
In Virginia, the capital punishment debate has heated up not because of the United States Supreme Court ruling but because of a recent state Supreme Court decision. In this ruling, the Virginia Supreme Court determined that both parents of arrested juveniles, not just one parent, must be notified by a summons.
One case creating much interest and speculation involves the youngest death row inmate in the state of Virginia, Steve Roach. In 1995, Roach was convicted of killing an elderly neighbor and sentenced to death. He was 17 years old at the time. And now, at the tender age of 22, his appeals process is exhausted, and he sits waiting to die. Following the Virginia Supreme Court's decision, Steve's only ray of hope comes from the possibility of a new trial if it is determined that only one parent was notified by a proper summons.
Across America, approximately 3500 inmates like Roach sit on death row awaiting their execution. A popular opinion among some is that these prisoners have forfeited their rights by committing whatever crime landed them in jail. To these people, "prisoners' rights" is a contradiction in terms.
The Supreme Court has, in the past, upheld the rights of prisoners. In Turner v. Shafley (1987), for example, the Court recognized that "prison walls do not form a barrier separating prison inmates from the Constitution."
Unfortunately, "Turner is not protective enough of prisoners' First Amendment and other constitutional rights," according to Jenni Gainsborough, a public policy administrator for the National Prison Project. This is because "courts have become increasingly more restrictive with respect to prisoners' rights." The increased limitation of prisoners' rights, particularly their First Amendment rights, is evidenced by prison bans or restrictions regarding news material.
This unconstitutional and disturbing trend has surfaced in two maximum-security prisons in Virginia. At Sussex 1 and Sussex 2, inmates are prohibited from receiving copies of newspaper articles or Internet material from friends or family. Steve Roach, who is on death row in Sussex 1, has been unable to receive copies of recent articles about himself or his case carried in local newspapers. Without Internet access in the library and with the ban on Internet materials by way of mail, Steve has not been able to access information regarding his own case contained on a web site created specifically for him and his supporters. Roach and other inmates have objected to the prison restriction on grounds that it violates their First Amendment rights. So far, their protests have been to no avail. Prison officials justify the restriction by claiming that there is not enough "space" and that it is a "safety" issue.
While the Internet could provide inmates access to potentially dangerous information, such as how to make a bomb, there are means available to block access to harmful sites. Since inmates' mail, both outgoing and incoming, is checked and censored, any incite-ful material posing a safety risk could be discarded at that point, rather than banning all newspaper clippings and Internet material.
Prisoners, particularly death row inmates like Roach, are commonly referred to as "dead men walking." Could they not at least be "dead men reading"? To be denied basic rights to information is unconstitutional and inhumane. Most of these cases drag on for years, and a number of death row inmates have been proven innocent and released. As Justice Thurgood Marshall stated, "When the prison gate slams behind an inmate, he does not lose his human quality." Have we, in the name of so-called "space" or "safety," lost ours?