In recent months, government officials have challenged Arizona prison inmates' rights to receive magazines like Playboy in the mail. The courts have upheld the prisoners' rights.
But it's apparently a hollow victory for inmates at one state prison. According to inmates who say they witnessed the crime, employees at the Arizona State Prison-Fort Grant Complex have been quietly burning and pillaging boxes of inmates' mail--including noncontroversial items such as clothing catalogues, computer magazines, even Sports Illustrated.
New Times has obtained four notarized affidavits from inmates at Fort Grant. The inmates allege they were ordered to burn caches of magazines that had been delivered to Fort Grant but never passed on to the subscriber-inmates. Fort Grant, which is located between the towns of Safford and Willcox, is a minimum-security facility. The affidavits were delivered to the internal affairs division of the Arizona Department of Corrections in Phoenix on March 13 by a relative of Bryan Gilliam, a Fort Grant inmate. Gilliam, 20, is serving a five-year sentence for car theft. Gilliam didn't witness the mail burning, but took affidavits from four other inmates. The accusations of mail destruction hit a nerve with Gilliam's father, Steve Gilliam, a 22-year veteran of the U.S. Postal Service who collected the affidavits from his son on a recent visit.
"I want the situation corrected. I want the U.S. mail protected. Inmates have rights. They should be getting their U.S. mail," Steve Gilliam says.
Postal Service spokeswoman Elaine Davis says theft or destruction of mail is punishable by fines of up to $2,000 and prison sentences of up to five years. However, Davis says the Postal Service has no jurisdiction over the mail once it is delivered to a prison. Distribution from there is the concern of the state, she says.
As of last Thursday--three days after the affidavits had been delivered to the Department of Corrections--no action had been taken by the department. Fort Grant warden David Gonzalez did not return calls.
Department of Corrections spokesman Mike Arra says the matter "has just been brought to our attention, and we have started looking into it, so that's really all I can say at this time." Steve Gilliam says, "The state Department of Corrections is handling it like, 'Well, we're going to do an investigation on it, but they're convicts, they don't ever tell the truth.' Give me a break! Maybe this time they are telling the truth."
According to his affidavit, inmate Timothy Allen, who is in prison for burglary, was at work at the motor pool on or about January 10 when the phone rang. A corrections officer named Hopper answered the phone and said, "No problem! We'll do it after lunch!" Allen later learned that the call came from the Mail and Property Room.
Allen and another inmate picked up three full boxes of mail, put them in the back of a truck and proceeded to a burn pit at the Fort Grant complex.
"We were ordered by CSO II Hopper to start burning the 'junk mail' while CSO II Hopper proceeded to go throught [sic] the mail looking for magizines [sic] to read. Upon burning the mail I had noticed that some of the inmate's mail with names and numbers of inmates who are still here at the Ft. Grant Prison."
Inmate Jeffrey Moore's affidavit starts off much the same as Allen's. Moore, who is serving time for theft, was in the Fort Grant motor pool on February 12 when the phone rang. This time, CSO Ferrin answered, then told Moore that the motor pool had been asked to pick up seven boxes from the Mail and Property Room "full of old books and magazines." Moore and another inmate, Dennis Tan, volunteered to assist Ferrin. Moore says Ferrin told him to bring a can of gasoline because "we must make sure that everything in these seven boxes are completely burned beyond recognition."
The three men drove to the burn pit and emptied the contents of the boxes onto the ground.
Moore says, "To our astonishment, we realized, after we had taken a closer look, that the contents of the seven boxes were not old books and magazines, but Inmate's personal mail."
They pulled out magazines dated January, February and March 1995 and saved them, then burned the rest. Moore says Ferrin kept some computer magazines, because he planned to buy a new computer. He says CSO II Hopper took home a Frederick's of Hollywood catalogue.
In his affidavit, Allen says, "The next morning CSO II E. Hopper had confirmed that he had taken home the catalog by stating that 'His wife had already pick[ed] out 4 outfits from the catalog he took home.'"
The day after the seven boxes of mail (sans a few choice periodicals) were destroyed, Allen and Moore returned to the site, Allen says.
"We did of course find some burnt mail with the names and numbers of inmates who are still here and haven't received it yet either. The mail was then placed in 2 clear plastic bags and removed to a safe place as evidence of this occurance [sic]."
In addition, Moore says, he took a pile of rescued magazines and distributed them to their rightful owners, asking them to type up affidavits about how they had obtained them.
Two inmates, Brent McCollum and Cornell Powell (incarcerated for armed robbery and burglary, respectively), signed affidavits claiming that they were missing mail and that it had been returned to them by another inmate on February 14.
McCollum's affidavit says he's had a subscription to Sports Illustrated for about two years. He's been at three other Arizona state prison facilities and has never had problems with mail. But when he arrived at Fort Grant in July 1994, issues were delivered late, then not at all. Then, on February 14, another inmate delivered the February 13 issue to him and told him that it had been found in a box of mail to be burned.
McCollum says, "This is not the first time that I have had mail disappear or not be delivered to me at all. This has not only happened with my magazine subscription, but also with personal mail."
Powell was also called aside by an inmate who gave him a clothing catalogue that had been addressed to him from a company named Eastbay. The magazine had been rescued from the fire, Powell says.
John Frank, a Phoenix attorney with the firm Lewis and Roca, wrote on March 16 to Gordon Bueler of the Arizona Attorney General's Office inquiring about the allegations in the affidavits. Bueler declined to comment. Donna Hamm of the prisoner-rights organization Middle Ground says if the allegations are true, it's clearly a violation of the Hook Decree, a 1973 settlement agreement between the Department of Corrections and state prison inmates that details the prisoners' right to receive mail. Hamm says, "The Department [of Corrections] does have a long and rather sordid history of violating the Hook Decree. And this would be another example if in fact it pans out. A blatant example, I would say."
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
The inmates who signed the affidavits, she adds, "are at severe risk for retaliation."
On March 16, Allen and Bryan Gilliam were placed in detention, Arra says, because the two got into a fight on March 15. Arra says it is believed the fight took place because Gilliam wanted to pursue the mail-burning allegations and Allen didn't.
Arra says, "That will also be a part of what we will look into." Steve Gilliam says his son has told him in phone conversations that he is being harassed. "They're shaking them down, trying to break them," Steve says, adding that it won't work.
"There's more affidavits coming.