Last December, the St. Louis Division of Corrections downgraded the visitation rights of the American Civil Liberties Union of Eastern Missouri from "professional" to "social" status, effectively making it more difficult for ACLU representatives to meet with inmates in the city's downtown jail.
The timing of that decision raises serious questions. In the two months leading up to the change in policy, the ACLU had filed two lawsuits against the city, citing substandard medical conditions in the jail. Also during that time period, the ACLU had aggressively been looking into a series of complaints suggesting that inmates were being physically abused by corrections officers.
So did the corrections division change its visitation policy to curtail the ACLU's investigations?
"It's hard to ascribe motives, but the timing is such that it raises the question," John Chasnoff, a representative for the ACLU, tells Daily RFT.
Corrections Commissioner Eugene Stubblefield defends the policy change, telling Daily RFT it was enacted because ACLU reps had been seeing too many inmates, which he says compromised safety.
"It was kind of like they wanted to see the whole institution," says Stubblefield. "And we're like, 'You can't do that, that's too disruptive.' "
Chasnoff says the ACLU had been sending a representative into the jail about once every three weeks during that time period.
The ACLU was first given professional visitation access in May 2009. For the next year and a half, ACLU representatives (not all of whom are attorneys) were given unlimited access to inmates without having to go to much trouble to schedule such appointments; all it took was a phone call, says Chasnoff.
But in December 2010, the corrections division revamped its visitation policy by adding a "legal" category to the already-existing "professional" and "social" categories. According to the new policy, only an inmate's attorney of record is given legal status -- all other attorneys seeking to visit are relegated to social status.
When the ACLU was placed in the "social" category, things changed. Social visitors must wait for an inmate to place them on his individual visitors list, which can slow the process. (Not all inmates realize that ACLU reps wish to speak with them, says Chasnoff.) In addition, scheduling a social appointment often means working out the details with an inmate in a series of snail mail letters and collect calls. Social visiting hours are more limited, and social guests aren't provided with a confidential environment to speak with inmates.
Stubblefield suggests the St. Louis jails are still "more liberal" than other jails across the country when it comes to visitor access. But some might disagree.
"Most jails around the country welcome attorney visits with prisoners," says David Fathi of the ACLU's Washington, D.C., office. Paul Wright, editor of the human rights publication Prison Legal News, adds, "This seems to be fairly unique to Missouri. I am surprised the local bar association is not raising a fuss."
Still, Stubblefield is standing firm. "As far as I know, the ACLU does not have the legislative authority to come inside a prison when they want to," he says. "The bottom line is the change in the policy did not limit them access to the inmate. It merely made it more organized for us and more in keeping with our security protocols."
But as a result of the change, the ACLU says it has become less aggressive in its investigations of abuse.
"We're visiting less because the process makes it more difficult," says Chasnoff.