Some Make Sense, but Many Prison Rules Seem Ridiculous. Why?

Some Make Sense, but Many Prison Rules Seem Ridiculous. Why?

When most people think of prison, they probably picture muscled individuals in the prison yard or trying to hide shanks during shakedowns. Television shows have groomed the average American to think of prison as a place where everyone is in constant danger and prisoners break rules to get their next fix or settle grudges. The reality is that many prison rules don’t seem to make a lot of sense. Prisons are not supposed to be comfortable, but imposing ridiculous rules only makes prisoners more hostile and sets them up for infractions, not life after release.

It’s also hard to track rules from prison to prison, so prisoners have to learn a new set of rules if they get a transfer or return to prison. Having consistent rules that make sense encourages good behavior. With those working hard to earn good time credits, it’s time to rethink some of the rules that could jeopardize those time credits.

Ridiculous Prison Rules Limit Photographs and Other Mail to Prisoners

Every prison has specific rules for how many photographs there can be in cells. The limit varies quite a bit, and loved ones can have a hard time tracking down the specifics for the prison where a family member stays. In some Arkansas prisons, prisoners can only have five photographs at any given time. Prisoners in Ohio can have as many as one hundred. And to make things worse, prisons set limits on how many photographs you can send in a letter. That limit is also specific to each facility. Send too many, and staff may confiscate the letter or choose which photos to deliver.

Image courtesy of RODNAE Productions from Pexels.

What’s the reason? According to prison staff, photographs are a fire hazard.

The ridiculous rules around prison mail don’t stop there, though. In some states, you can’t send mail directly to prisoners. Mail sorting facilities have to be approved to sort prison mail. Pennsylvania doesn’t have a single approved vendor. If you want to send mail to a prisoner in a Pennsylvania prison, you have to send it to a special site in Florida. There, your letter is scanned and delivered in electronic form. They never receive the physical letter.

This may not sound too ridiculous for simple letters, but it also means that prisoners cannot receive birthday cards or physical photographs from family. Yes, contraband sometimes enters prisons through mail. But prohibiting all physical mail for every prisoner seems a bit extreme.

Prisons Ban Board Games, Books and Other Coping Mechanisms

With millions infected and several prisons unable to contain the spread of coronavirus, prison staff have had to take measures to enforce social distancing. For some prisons, that means a ban on board games. This may not seem too ridiculous given that the United States has been battling COVID-19 for a year. Still, restrictions like this one highlight a larger problem; prisons often ban the things prisoners use to cope with stress. Without outlets to manage the trauma of incarceration, prisoners are more prone to act out. This can lead to violations, loss of good time credits and even new charges that lengthen sentences.

In 2019, Pennsylvania announced a ban on all tobacco products in state prisons. While prisoners are in prison for violating laws and do not have the same freedoms that other Americans do, blanket prohibitions like this may cause more harm than they solve. Smoking may not be healthy, but it is a recognized method for managing everything from stress and addiction to high blood pressure and ADHD. Restricting use to specific areas makes sense. Banning cigarettes does not.

Pennsylvania defends the decision, pointing out that they can use non-refillable e-cigarettes or nicotine patches. The problem, of course, is that e-cigarettes contain numerous toxins that make them more dangerous for users. Nicotine patches may help with cigarette addiction, but they don’t necessarily reduce stress. The general consensus is that this ban will not reduce the number of prisoners who use tobacco in prison. Instead, it encourages them to circumvent a ridiculous prison rule and use tobacco in secret. Prison staff might want to ask themselves whether rules like this are designed to protect the prison, or if they lead to upticks in prison violence.

Ridiculous bans are a mainstay in prison handbooks, and most facilities even regulate access to books.

According to the Supreme Court, states can legally ban books under the auspice that they’re censoring materials “detrimental to the security, good order or discipline of the institution.” This effectively gives prisons carte blanche to prohibit any book they believe will affect prisoner safety. Some states have banned tens of thousands of books. This begs the question: what are the books that prisons worry will incite violence or destabilize the institution? Popular books banned in Texas prisons include The Color Purple, Freakonomics and even Dante’s Inferno. Arizona banned E=MC2: Simple Physics. Strangely, prisoners can still read books like Mein Kampf. These ridiculous rules about what prisoners read don’t make prisons safer; they make it harder to learn.

New York attempted to ban all books that did not come from its list of approved vendors. They argued that the move would “enhance the safety and security of correctional facilities through a more controlled inmate package program.” However, critics noted that the change would cost more money. It would also prohibit programs like Books Through Bars from stocking prison libraries with donated books. Even family members could not send books directly to loved ones in prison. It seems that Governor Andrew Cuomo recognized how ridiculous the rule was, though. He rescinded the order quickly.

Books don’t just offer prisoners an escape from reality. They also help prisoners rehabilitate and improve literacy skills. Access to a broad range of books helps hone reading abilities and learn new things. One of the biggest factors affecting recidivism is literacy. Prisoners are twice as likely to return to prison if they have poor literacy skills. When prisons move to ban or grossly strict prison libraries, they’re working against themselves.

Absurd Rules Extend to Personal Items, Too

Many prisons have ridiculous rules regarding personal items. For one, prisoners usually can’t give or sell items to others. On the surface, this makes sense. Prisons try to limit everything prisoners use as commerce. They also try to control theft and quell violence related to personal items. Where things break down is that the rule extends to those released from prison. They may have little use for items in the outside world or understand that they can replace them with ease. Unfortunately, prisoners cannot will items to others when they leave prison. That means that many items get thrown in the trash or abandoned when they could still be of use.

Even more ridiculous is the broad ban on altering personal items. It’s understandable that staff don’t want prisoners to open up electronics or use personal items to create weapons. But the ban doesn’t specify which items prisoners can’t alter. This ambiguity means that things like polished stones and chess pieces carved from soap are contraband. With so few opportunities for self-expression, a ban on soap sculptures feels a bit absurd. Staff can note any small change, including nicks or discoloration, as cause for confiscating the item. This only exacerbates an already volatile dichotomy between prisoners and correctional officers.

Strange and Discriminatory Regulations about Prisoners’ Bodies

Most people know that intimate relationships are expressly forbidden in American prisons. The reason seems obvious. Relationships can become hostile and increase the risk of violence. Prison is also a place for consequences, not comforts. Still, a complete prohibition on relationships does little to stop prisoners from getting involved with one another. That’s because humans are social creatures, and most find solace in intimate relationships.

One has to question the spirit of a ban on relationships behind bars. If the penal system is designed to rehabilitate, restricting intimacy perpetuates poor interpersonal skills. Many prisons offer actual courses on interpersonal communication and conflict resolution, yet staff prohibit convenient and practical applications of these skills.

Some ridiculous prison rules include a ban on board games and other mutual entertainment.
Image courtesy of RODNAE Productions via Pexels.

Of course, the most ridiculous part of prison rules banning intimate relationships is that they extend to every type of sexual contact. That means that prisoners are not allowed to masturbate. There is little evidence that masturbation causes interpersonal conflict, but there is plenty of evidence that starving human beings of physical contact and sexual release adversely affects them physically and emotionally. In fact, scientists agree that prohibiting physical contact can cause anxiety, depression, insomnia, and even suicidal ideation. It’s time for prisons to step back and think about the lasting impact that a ban on intimacy has for prisoners. It’s possible that forcing prisoners to pursue these interactions in secret actually causes more conflict than it prevents.

Some argue that rules for hair styles violate religious freedom.

Even hairstyles are heavily regulated in some prisons. Some prisoners argue that prohibitions on certain styles violate their religious freedom. Like the ban on books, courts have defended these bans by saying that the rules help keep prisoners safe. It’s hard to understand why a Muslim prisoner cannot grow a short beard or why a Native American prisoner is forced to cut his hair. Staff could require specific upkeep that addresses hygiene issues without imposing restrictions that violate religious or cultural beliefs. In most cases, though, prisons strictly enforce grooming regulations unless prisoners file an appeal that specifically names religious freedom laws.

Ridiculous Rules in State and Federal Prisons Need to Change

It’s easy to laugh at how ridiculous some prison rules are. But the truth is that staff need to take a hard look at the regulations they enforce. Prison reformers have long argued that the current climate in state and federal prisons is punitive. The problem is that our justice system purports to be focused on rehabilitation.

But when we deny prisoners basic coping mechanisms, opportunities for self-expression and religious freedom, we are not preparing them for release. Prisoners are far more likely to return to prison if they never learn how to manage simple privileges. These heavy regulations also contribute to prison violence and conflict between prisoners and staff. It’s time to restructure prisons, to restore the humanity of those behind bars and refocus efforts on getting them ready for the world that awaits them.

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