Soledad prisoner presents another view on free speech
And I thought only my mom read the Law Review. Here’s the beginning of a thoughtful letter I received from a young man who’s been in Soledad Prison for nearly 20 years.
“I received my Jan. 30 Sierra Sun yesterday afternoon. This morning, while waiting to go to work, I was skimming the paper when I came across your article. I always read your contribution to the local paper because it almost always brings a smile to my day, this day being no different. I did however want to offer you an opinion of a prisoner who enjoys his First Amendment right.
“Please understand that I am in no way siding with Jack Trawick, for there is no sane reason for his conduct.”
The Soledad prisoner, Grid Margraf, was referring to a Law Review column complaining about the ACLU using the First Amendment to assist a twisted prisoner named Jack Trawick. Trawick tortured and murdered a young woman, then sent e-mails from prison describing in graphic detail how he killed her, even taunting her mother by name.
I went over the edge: “The ACLU’s position is that the First Amendment prevents prison officials from blocking inmates’ outgoing mail, unless it presents a security risk or it involves a crime in progress. That’s absurd.”
Grid Margraf, formerly of Truckee, is doing time for a serious crime. His sister was a summer law clerk in our office at the time of his arrest.
Grid’s point was that Jack Trawick was not solely the problem Ð albeit he was a “demented murderer” Ð but there were others on the “outside” who were posting his e-mails on Web pages, getting their “fix.”
He added, “We as prisoners do not enjoy absolute freedom of speech. Our mail is censored, our magazine subscriptions are censored, our movies are censored.”
As is the case on the “outside,” a few bad apples change our lives for the worse. That’s why we wait in long lines at airports. And why kids in city schools walk through metal detectors.
As Grid wrote: “Freedom of speech is about the only freedom that I have left and after almost 20 years in prison I value it greatly.”
Title 15 establishes the parameters for prison mail. Prison staff may read and deny inmates from sending or receiving mail which “presents danger, or a threat of danger, to any person, or is reasonably deemed to be a threat to legitimate penological interests.” Coded messages are prohibited, as are descriptions of how to sabotage computers and communications, and of course, obscene material (as defined) is not allowed, nor may inmates send escape plans or plans to make weapons. There’s a whole procedure if an inmate believes correctional staff is improperly disallowing correspondence.
Grid makes a good point. We overly restrict the rights of many for the wrongs of a few, and in this case, potentially deny him one of the few pleasures he has, writing home.
But I won’t back down from my view that something’s wrong with the system when monsters like Jack Trawick are able to operate with other sick people and continue to ruin lives, even while in prison. And for that, the ACLU should be ashamed.
Jim Porter is an attorney with Porter-Simon, with offices in Truckee, South Lake Tahoe and Reno. He is a mediator and was the governor’s appointee to the Bipartisan McPherson Commission and the California Fair Political Practices Commission. He may be reached at email@example.com or on the Web at http://www.portersimon.com.