Books Behind Bars: The Great Break-In

Attorney Robert Allison visits Cook County Jail next Wednesday. He wants to see if the Department of Corrections has learned to live with its fear of mail-order books.

Allison represents a fellow named Robert Jackson, who’s spent way too much of his adult life in the county jail (never for anything violent). “I got tired of going to jail,” Jackson told us. “I figured out I was going to jail because I didn’t know nothing and I had a drinking problem. When I went to jail again in 1980, I said, well, the only way I’m going to escape all this is to read. I’ve always liked to read . . .”

So Jackson ordered some books: Goethe’s Faust, Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Idea, Kosinski’s The Painted Bird, Fromm’s Anatomy of Human Destructiveness . . .

They didn’t come.

Next he decided to seize his troubles by the root. He wrote Alcoholics Anonymous. And he contacted a minister in Tennessee who helped him establish a line of credit with Barnes & Noble in New York. He ordered several volumes on self-improvement.

These books didn’t come either.

In 1986 Jackson found himself back in jail, and the same thing happened again–he waited for books that never arrived. Guards shrugged and pleaded ignorance.

Finally a letter arrived from AA that revealed the truth: AA had tried to send him some books, but the jail had sent them back. The jail came clean. Hardbacks violate jail regulations, Jackson finally was informed. Weapons or contraband can be concealed inside their covers.

Then tear off the covers, Jackson proposed. Too time-consuming. If the publishers tear off the covers, can I have the books? Jackson asked. No, he was told.

Perhaps it no longered mattered. Jackson feared it was too late for him to change his life by reading. “Both my mental capacity as well as attention span has diminished to such a degree whereas to render it all but ineffective,” he lamented.

But if he mourned, he also got mad. What we just quoted from is the complaint Jackson submitted in 1986 to the U.S. District Court. Appointed Jackson’s attorney, Robert Allison filed a suit charging the Department of Corrections with violating Jackson’s constitutional rights.

To be brief about five years of legal history, Jackson has prevailed at every turn. To justify its conduct, the county offered an affidavit from defendant Robert Glotz, then the jail’s assistant director of security. Not only can hardbound books be hollowed out, Glotz explained, they “also may be used as bludgeons or as handles for blades.”

Federal Judge Prentice Marshall wasn’t buying. “Nowhere does [the affidavit] describe specific incidents where hardback books were used in any manner posing a security risk,” he wrote. “Furthermore, Glotz’ own deposition contradicts several assertions in his affidavit. For instance, Glotz admits . . . that it is as difficult to detect contraband in clothing and other items as it is in hardcover books. Yet detainees may receive those other items through the mail and keep them in their cells.”

Glotz also tried to explain why the jail didn’t bother to tell inmates about the books that had gone back to the sender. Too much work, said Glotz: “Due to the burden of processing mail for . . . 5,600 inmates . . . the Department of Corrections notifies only the sender of the contraband hardcover that it is being rejected for security reasons.”

All the jail has to do, Marshall responded, is photocopy the notice being mailed back with the book and deliver it to the inmate with his mail. “These are obvious, easy alternatives to the restriction on plaintiff’s due process rights.”

Marshall came down hard. His summary judgment issued in late 1987 found that the ban on hardback books “encroached upon [Jackson’s] First Amendment right to receive information.” The jail’s “nonnotification policy . . . violates the Constitution.” For permitting inmates’ constitutional rights to be violated, Marshall found that officials such as Glotz and the then executive director of the Department of Corrections, Philip Hardiman, were liable for damages. A panel of the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously agreed.

The Department of Corrections announced in court that Cook County Jail had changed its policy. The jail would henceforth bear the burden of tearing off the covers and delivering the books.

Was that the end of it? No. In January 1990 Allison returned to the courtroom to describe a little experiment he’d conducted. He’d asked Kroch’s to send a hardbound copy of Appellate Judge Richard Posner’s Law and Literature to Robert Jackson–who unfortunately was a Cook County inmate once again.

“And the book came back unopened,” Allison said, “with written on the cover, ‘Hard.'”

Allison told the court, “Defendants initially said that it was an isolated incident. But later we got documentation that showed that they hadn’t changed the policy in the last two years.”

This shameful revelation actually cut in Jackson’s favor. The Department of Corrections had already offered him $5,000 in damages. Now the department’s lawyer announced that in light of “these new events counsel is referring to . . . I’m going to seek to sweeten the deal, so to speak.”

Jackson wound up getting $12,500. He gave a big chunk of it to his mother. The rest is to live on. He’s out of jail again and trying to stay straight–his last known address was a YMCA.

Last September the corrections department signed an agreement that puts the county jail perpetually under Allison’s thumb. The jail’s revised regulations guarantee that inmates can receive and must be told they can receive hardbound books. The mailroom must display “in a conspicuous location” a poster that says, “Inmates are allowed to receive hardcover books.”

Any further changes in the rules will have to be approved by the court, and the jail will have to notify not only Allison but also the John Howard Association and the American Booksellers Association. And to make sure the jail follows the rules, Allison gets to visit it every three months.

His first visit was last March. “I was amazed,” he told us afterward. “They knew I was coming, so they had ample notice to get organized and do it right. And in a lot of ways they aren’t doing it right.”

Take, for example, the poster in the mailroom. “They had it turned to the wall because the mailroom superintendent thought it might embarrass the employees.”

Allison visited one of the tiers. The summary of inmate rights posted there hadn’t been updated to include the right to receive hardbound books.

Allison expects to find all the stray details tidied up when he returns to the jail next week. “I think they’d be really stupid to not get it right this time,” he said. “If they don’t, I don’t think I’ll have any choice but to go back to court.”

Sentencing for Survivors

Last week the U.S. Supreme Court reached as troubling a conclusion as we can remember. In what strikes us as an assault on the notion of human equality, the court decreed by a 6-3 margin that murder is a crime that is more or less serious depending on who’s been murdered.

In Payne v. Tennessee, the court ruled that a jury considering the death penalty is entitled to consider the impact of the crime on the victim’s survivors. In the case of Payne, the survivor was three-year-old Nicholas Christopher, who survived an attack in which his mother and younger sister were killed. “He cries for his mom. He doesn’t understand why she doesn’t come home. And he cries for his sister Lacie,” the boy’s grandmother testified. And the prosecutor, asking for the death penalty–which Pervis Payne received–told the jury, “There is obviously nothing you can do for Charisse and Lacie Joe. But there is something you can do for Nicholas . . .”

In other words, you can avenge him. But what if there’d been no Nicholas to avenge? What if Nicholas had not been born? What if Pervis Payne had killed him, too? What if Nicholas were of age and had asked for compassion, not revenge? Nothing about the murders would have changed except their impact on survivors. Yet on that impact, the court tells us, a jury’s life-or-death decision can hinge.

“Until today,” wrote Justice John Paul Stevens in his dissent, “our capital punishment jurisprudence had required that any decision to impose the death penalty be based solely on evidence that tends to inform the jury about the character of the offense and the character of the defendant.”

What more was needed? The act of murder possessed an absolute magnitude that could not be adorned. But now relativity has been added to the mix. The court has invited us to think it less of a crime to murder a nameless trollop than a woman of good family, less of a crime to murder this woman when she’s young and single than after she’s borne children, and less of a crime to kill her after her children are grown. Perhaps people always thought that way, but the law didn’t. Now it may. Once the survivors’ tales become key to sentencing, murder is only as serious as it is pathetic.

Human life has been profoundly devalued when a prosecutor seeks the death penalty not in the name of the life lost but to avenge an orphan’s tears.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.