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Our View: Corrections officers have better things to do than decide whether mail is obscene

A lot is asked of corrections officers in a largely thankless and inherently dangerous job. They are expected to strictly enforce the rules of the facility. They supervise inmates, keeping them in line and contributing to rehabilitation. And they have to be vigilant in checking cells to make sure everything is secure and free of contraband.

Some are also responsible for reading through incoming inmate mail to decide if it can be delivered. That includes clear-cut duties like seizing anything that could contain drugs or might refer to a criminal act. That also, apparently, entails acting as a literary critic/censor, deciding what sort of risque prose inmates are allowed to read, a subjective duty.

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A Westminster woman who wrote admittedly sexually explicit letters to her boyfriend inside the Carroll County Detention Center told us the first one got to him, but the second was not delivered and, in fact, went missing for about a month after being deemed obscene. She was confused about this, she says, because she asked ahead of time about what was acceptable.

“You could write anything, as long as it didn’t have to do with violence, direct threats, criminal activity, drugs or any of that type of thing,” Stacy Maczis said she was told by a corrections officer she spoke with prior to penning her first intimate letter. After her second letter didn’t pass the obscenity test, she told us she reached out again to officers at the facility, asking about the policy and questioning why it mattered. “I know you are allowed to read my letters. That’s fine. Read them. But I’m 47, he’s 35. If I want to have sex with this man, why is it your business?’”

She felt like this was a violation of her boyfriend’s rights, but it turns out there is no constitutional right for those who are incarcerated to read racy material. Jose Anderson, a professor of law at the University of Baltimore, told us correctional officers have “a broad range of discretion” in terms of what correspondence is confiscated and what makes it through to prisoners.

“It has been tested in the courts about what we can block and deny,” Carroll County Detention Center Warden George Hardinger told us. “They said we need to articulate a reason, and they use the term ‘obscene,’ which our materials use. ... We are fully in compliance.”

All incoming mail to the detention center, other than legal correspondence, is reviewed by correctional officers, Hardinger said, although their primary concern is contraband and drugs. In terms of written content, he said, the officers are looking for threats or criminal activity. “We’re not trying to stop people from having some discussion. But if it’s a bit much, then, yeah, send it back. We have a form that we fill out,” Hardinger told us. “We check a block that says, ‘This is why your mail is being returned.’ ”

We understand the need for mail to be inspected closely. We concede CCDC is on solid legal ground and officers can seize mail for myriad reasons. But we do wonder why two adults can’t write pretty much whatever they want to each other. And it appears the warden may be wondering that himself. He conceded that what was once unacceptable — tattoos on law enforcement officers, for example — can become acceptable over time.

Since the matter was brought up to Hardinger, he has had policy discussions. “We all agreed there are some [sexually explicit] letters that have gotten [delivered]. So, accepting that, do we really want to be in a position where we are editing people’s mail and saying you really can’t have this discussion?” Hardinger said. “I don’t know that we came down on a clear, ‘Everyone is on the same page,’ but it certainly led to an interesting discussion. It’s something that’s not over yet.”

Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously wrote that while he couldn’t define hardcore pornography, “I know it when I see it.” Corrections officers are being asked to make that same arbitrary determination. Inevitably, different officers will reach different conclusions. It makes sense to let them stop making judgments about sexy stories and just focus on the many aspects of their job that are actually important.

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