Sunday, March 22, 2015

In Response to South Woods Authorities' Actions, NJ - ACLU Support Sought

RE: Seeking Legal Support for Free Speech and Expression for Advocates at Prisons and Jails in NJ

Dear ACLU-NJ In-Take Associates,

I am writing to you about our encounters with prison authorities and local police at South Woods State Prison in Bridgeton NJ when we attempted to effectively communicate to visitors of prisoners there by distributing a letter on March 21.  The following link documents our experiences outside the facility:

We are seeking your representation to establish the right for a means to effectively communicate with visitors at prison facilities within the state of New Jersey.
As I stated in the blog article on the encounter, I believe that constitutionally we should be afforded greater access to the ability to share information and communicate more directly with visitors of prisoners at South Woods and other state run prison facilities in New Jersey.

In the early 90s, activists and attorneys challenged a ban on leafleting at NJ malls after the activists were stopped from trying to share leaflets inside the malls about the Gulf War.  The prevailing argument was that the malls are today’s equivalent as the “new” Main Street and thus some form of access to political expression in the form of leafleting needs to be provided on the grounds of shopping malls.

While prison authorities will no doubt say that they have unique concerns, the situation with mass incarceration and the racial dynamics of incarceration, particularly in NJ, means that prisons during visitation hours are like malls, in effect part of Main Street in America, particularly for the impoverished and for residents of color that are so disproportionately effected by mass incareration.  Any unique concerns authorities might have need to be balanced to the constitutional rights of advocates and visitors and some form of accommodation per the NJ and US Constitutions needs to be established.

Our organization, Decarcerate the Garden State, has reached out to Attorney Bennett Zurofsky who had this to offer on the matter:

Bob Witanek - I agree with your hunch that you have greater free speech rights in the public areas outside of South Woods Prison than the Department of Corrections and the Bridgeton Police were willing to recognize. To begin, property owned by the State of New Jersey is public property and most certainly is NOT private property as the local police told you. Because it is prison property it may be subject to some regulation beyond that permitted on Main Street (as you put it), but regulations that completely prohibit effective hand-billing outside of the security perimeter and along the side of a road or near a parking lot entrance so that you could effectively reach visitors would (in my view) almost certainly be held unconstitutional under both the State and Federal Constitutions. If you weren't in Bridgeton (which is more than 2 hours from my office) I would undertake the case myself. I suggest that you contact ACLU of New Jersey which I think is likely to be interested in defending your right to this sort of leafleting in the immediate vicinity of a prison.

Per Bennett’s suggestion, I am reaching out to the ACLU NJ to inquire about your ability to take on this challenge and represent us to establish the right of advocates for prisoners rights and for decarceration to share hand bills and talk to visitors to prisoners during visitation hours safely on or adjacent to state, county and federal prison facilities in the state of New Jersey.

Please contact me for any deposition that you might need to proceed or to discuss any additional facts that need to be established.   Kim Holder who accompanied me on this prisoner visitation outreach task on March 21 can be contacted through his office in the African Studies Department at Rowan University or you can ask me to assist in making such contact.

I look forward to working with you on assisting the prison and local authorities in recognizing our constitutional rights to a safe and effective means to communicate with visitors to NJ’s prisons on the grounds of such facilities or adjacent to such grounds.

Bob Witanek
For Decarcerate the Garden State 908-881-5275

Addendum, March 24, 2015:
I was contacted by the intake coordinator at ACLU NJ today - I was interviewed for the potential of ACLU NJ joining us in challenging the ban on leafleting and communication to visitors at NJ prisons.  She is going to present the proposed action to the legal team at ACLU NJ - so we cleared the first hurdle of the review process!

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