By Chris Paschenko
GALVESTON — A prayer printed from the Internet and mailed to an inmate wasn’t delivered to the prisoner on grounds it contained religious material, the sheriff’s office told a Santa Fe woman.
Carolyn Mancuso O’Hara’s letter to family friend Jeffrey Owens was returned to her Santa Fe post office box April 9, stamped “return to sender, not authorized, religious material.”
The letter consisted of nine pages, including eight that were handwritten and contained Bible versus, O’Hara said. Another page, which O’Hara printed from the Internet, contained the prayer of St. Michael the Archangel.
The jail denied the letter solely on the printout and not on the basis of religion, Maj. Ray Tuttoilmondo, a Galveston County Sheriff’s Office spokesman, said.
O’Hara considers St. Michael as Owens’ guardian angel, based on his birth date. The prayer asks God to protect people against the wickedness and snares of the devil.
“When it was returned to me, I became angry,” O’Hara said. “I had to take a look at my conscious. As a Catholic Christian, being angry is not the thing to do. I prayed for God’s will and guidance and asked what to do.”
O’Hara was moved to action after hearing her priest’s message April 18, which encouraged the congregation not to deny Jesus as the disciple Peter had.
O’Hara called the jail and spoke to an officer, who happened to have been a member of her church. He heard the same message, she said.
The officer told O’Hara to mail the printout back, and he would see whether it could be delivered to Owens. He made no promises, O’Hara said.
In the returned letter, the sheriff’s office placed a letterhead of Sheriff Freddie Poor inside, saying the letter was rejected because the jail doesn’t accept religious material.
The jail has a blanket policy to reject all material printed from Web pages, religious or otherwise, Tuttoilmondo said. If the prayer had been typed or handwritten, then it would have been delivered, he said.
“Something printed from the Internet, a magazine, newspaper clippings, those are not permitted in mail,” Tuttoilmondo said.
The rejection letter, listing the reason it wasn’t delivered, was incomplete in its explanation, Tuttoilmondo said.
The jail rejects all printouts as a matter of effective management practices, Tuttoilmondo said.
“You’ll find just about the same rule in any other jail our size,” Tuttoilmondo said. The jail must reasonably limit what and how much any inmate is permitted to have, Tuttoilmondo said, citing fire hazards and limited space per prisoner.
By RICK CASEY
Chronicle reporter Susan Carroll doesn’t look like someone who would intentionally start a prison riot. She is petite, dresses professionally and, like most good reporters, does not make a habit of trying to draw attention to herself.
But there it was in black and white. Actually, it was in black and pink, the official color of carbon copies from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, the agency that runs our state prisons.
Carroll had written a story, said the denial notification form, “that a reasonable person would construe as written solely for the purpose of communicating information designed to achieve the breakdown of prisons through offender disruption such as strikes or riots.”
As a result, the story had been sliced out from the Sunday, Jan. 18, edition of the Chronicle delivered to inmate David Chiles at the LeBlanc Unit near Beaumont.
Reason ‘fit most closely’
Carroll’s article, headlined “U.S. teens carry out bloody work for cartel,” told the story of some Texas youths who ran drugs and murdered people on behalf of the notorious Zetas arm of the Gulf Cartel, one of Mexico’s most powerful gangs.
When I asked Carroll about it she just smiled: “You know, it occurred to me that it had been a long time since I caused a prison riot …”
She was just kidding, of course. So, in a sense, were the folks who run Texas prisons.
Jason Clark, a TDCJ spokesman, noted that the form “Denial Notification” had only six boxes for mailroom censors to check.
The one I quoted above, he said, “fits most closely” the reason Carroll’s article was excised and destroyed.
No info on explosives
He’s right. As far as I could decipher, the article did not in any way:
• • Contain contraband.
• • Contain information regarding the manufacture of explosives, weapons or drugs.
• • Encourage homosexual or deviant criminal sexual behavior, thereby being “detrimental to offenders’ rehabilitation.”
• • Contain material on setting up and operating criminal schemes or on concealing such schemes.
• • Contain sexually explicit images.
The article didn’t include any of that stuff, so the closest fit was a box regarding material written solely for the purpose of causing a riot.
The prison censors, explained Clark, didn’t really think Carroll wrote the story for any nefarious reason other than, perhaps, to help sell newspapers.
It was, after all, a fascinating story.
But the story included information on the arrests of 14 Gulf Cartel members. Thirteen have pleaded guilty to various crimes. Charges against one have been dropped.
Reporting of such developments can be problematic, said Clark.
“The situation can be delicate,” he said. “If inmates understood someone was indicted from a gang, it could raise tensions in that group. They might think a fellow inmate had snitched.”
The attitude among censors is that being safe is better than being sorry. It doesn’t even matter if the inmate subscribing to the paper is a gang member. Other inmates might see the article.
And it’s not as though censors have time to review material in a scholarly fashion.
The system’s roughly 156,000 inmates were sent 18.4 million pieces of mail in the last fiscal year. In addition, they were sent 186,632 packages. Every piece of mail was opened and inspected.
With that volume, it is hardly surprising that prison censors offer something of a paradigm of the criminal justice system: Criminals cheat and lie while assembly-line justice attempts, with varying degrees of success, to approximate the truth.
TEXAS PRISON MAILROOM CENSORS LAST YEAR
Banned: United States: An Illustrated History (racial content)
Banned: Electrician' s Exam Study Guide (security concerns)
Banned: Wilderness Survival (could be used to facilitate an escape)
Banned: Good Housekeeping, August 2007 (criminal schemes)
Banned: Texas Hill Country, Spring/Summer 2007 (map)
Banned: Spiritual Tattoo (sexually explicit images, tattoo making)
Banned: The Administratrix (female homosexuality)
Banned: Mother Jones, Sept/Oct 2007 (nude child...in a story on mining dangers)
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