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The System is Making It Hard on "Pro-Per" Inmates

A Letter from the Los Angeles County Jail

by VONNIE EDWARDS

The old Law Library at the Central Jail that closed on June 11, 2005, consisted of books with ripped, torn and missing pages, an electric pencil sharpener and a mail scale. The audio and video player’s are located in the attorney visiting room, which hinders pro-per’s access. [A pro-per is an inmate representing themselves in court proceedings.] Also pro-per inmates have to be escorted by deputies to the old Law Library, which shaves off hours in library time weekly by delay, lockdowns or late running deputies. The mail system is inadequate for pro-pers because it takes an average of 15 days for inmates to receive incoming legal mail while outgoing legal mail is being read and delayed by deputies. Essential services are inadequate for indigent pro-pers. Jail officials are not consistently providing legal materials known as pro-per kits, and law library phone accounts for pro-pers are delayed averaging 16 days to post before an inmate can make calls.

Not much has changed since the new Law Library opened June 14, 2005. Touch screen computers that freeze up periodically. The only equipment in the library now is the pencil sharpener. The ten touch screens are flawed and sometimes only half are working. Inmate groups sometimes range from 8 to 13 pro-per inmates, leaving some inmates without computers to use, consequently having no "law library" access. The two hours required time often becomes less because of showers, meals or deputies running late. No clocks exist, not even on the computers, leaving inmates no way of proving how much time they are being cheated out of. Old law books with torn pages from the previous law library were placed in the new law library on 10-31-05, to give the impression that the law library is adequate. During the holiday season of 2005 (Christmas and New Year’s) there were no legal forms in the library, no pro-per funds were posted to pro-per phone accounts, and a number of inmates actually had funds missing from their personal accounts.

In addition, the Los Angeles County Sheriffs Department has instituted a new policy eliminating the practice of providing pro per-inmates with ten stamps per week. This is based on the fact that legal mail is supposedly free. However, outgoing mail to civil and prisoner rights organizations is not considered legal mail. Panel-approved (hand-picked) private investigators assigned to pro-per defendants are overbooked, subjected to unreasonable delays before being allowed to confer with clients (inmates), and in many cases the loyalties of the panel-approved investigators are definitely suspect.

As a result pro-per inmates are not prepared in court and prosecuting attorneys take advantage of pro-per inmates. This situation denies pro-pers due process and equal protection under the law, which translates into easy convictions for prosecutors.

In conclusion, the Los Angeles County Jail has gradually but effectively eliminated communication between pro-per inmates and outside resources. The Los Angeles County Superior Courts are aware of the afore-said practices but have remained silent. As a result of the inadequate law library, violent atmosphere, limited communication and various other conditions, many inmates throughout the county jail system–including pro per inmates–plead guilty because prison is a little safer and less stressful.

VONNIE EDWARDS is currently an inmate in the Los Angeles County jail. He can be reached at: capnnic@aol.com