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York County Prison policies dubbed contraband under new rule

Lindsey O'Laughlin
York Dispatch
York County Prison Monday, June 10, 2019. Bill Kalina photo

Paper copies of any portion of the York County Prison policy manual will now be considered contraband for inmates.

The move aims to prevent inmates from using the information to disrupt prison operations or compromise security, solicitor Donald Reihart said Wednesday.

The York County Prison Board unanimously approved the rule over fears the county will lose its appeal in Commonwealth Court seeking to prevent the public disclosure of several operational policies used at the prison.

"Even if they’re public records, they shouldn’t be in the hands of inmates," Reihart said of the policies.

The county's appeal to the Commonwealth Court is a response to Common Pleas Judge Richard K. Renn's February order that York County turn over copies of the prison's policies governing use of force, provision of medical care and inmate intake, among others, to attorney John Coyle.

Coyle is representing the family of Everett Palmer, a 41-year-old Delaware man who died April 9, 2018, after being locked up in York County Prison for two days.

Common Pleas Judge Craig T. Trebilcock, who's a member of the prison board, abstained from the vote because of his professional connection to Renn.

No portion of the prison's operational policy should be made public, Reihart said, but if the courts require public disclosure, those documents should still be kept from inmates, he argued.

Reihart has made similar arguments in the past about safety and security superseding public access to information. In early February, county spokesperson Mark Walters told The York Dispatch it was the county's position that its policy prohibiting civilians from taking photos and video of the prison from the public sidewalk superseded the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Media organizations and civil rights groups disputed that claim. 

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A photo of Everett Palmer Jr. is displayed on a sign during a press conference at the York County Judicial Center Monday, July 23, 2018. Family members and legal counsel are seeking information regarding the death of the Palmer while he was in custody at York County Prison last April. Bill Kalina photo

Clasina Houtman, from the York County Public Defender's Office, isn't a voting member on the prison board, but she's one of several county officials who attend the meetings to provide input and feedback.

Houtman said she understood why Reihart wanted to keep sensitive information and policies out of inmates' hands, but she questioned whether the amendment classifying them as contraband was too broad and vague.

"If it ends up in their tablet, (and) it’s not blocked somehow," she said, "is it then contraband when they’re reading it on their tablet?"

Houtman said she worried that inmates would be punished for accessing public documents online.

York County Commissioner Julie Wheeler expressed similar concerns about how the policy would be applied.

Warden Clair Doll said the inmate tablets, which are part of the prison's communication infrastructure, have only limited access to the internet.

The amendment to the prison policy manual doesn't specify which format would be considered contraband, but Reihart said it would apply to physical paper copies in an inmate's possession.

Normally, the punishment for contraband is simply to take it away from the inmate, Reihart said after the meeting.

Melissa Melewsky, media law counsel for the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association, said operational policies that truly present a security risk in the case of disclosure can be withheld from inmates in compliance with the Right to Know Law.

But that allowance probably doesn't automatically extend to all information and every policy, Melewsky said.

"When the rubber meets the road, prison officials will have to figure out how widely this will be implemented with regard to limiting access to public information," she said.

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