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Old 10-04-2004, 09:16 AM
Phil in Paris Phil in Paris is offline
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Default Article: Judge says restrictions too harsh for sex offenders

Men awaiting civil trials have badges identifying their crime and are confined to cells at the Newton prison.

October 2, 2004

A federal judge says conditions are unconstitutionally harsh for Iowa inmates who await trials to determine whether they are sexual predators.

U.S. District Judge Robert Pratt in Des Moines ruled that the state has "no discernible, legitimate" reason to keep the men locked up most of the day and deny them "reasonable access" to visitors, telephones and other privileges.

The ruling is a victory for a group of inmates at the Newton Correctional Facility who sued the state. The men completed their prison sentences for sex crimes and are being held for civil commitment trials.

"They're housed with federal drug detainees and are given suits and badges that identify them as sex offender," said Randall Wilson, a lawyer for the Iowa Civil Liberties Union, which represented the men. "What we hear is that there is a lot of intimidation and harassment. . . . When they go through the line at the canteen, other inmates spit in their food and do things like that.

"They are confined to their cells between 20 to 23 hours a day."

The predator treatment program is controversial because offenders are confined for an indefinite period and released only after they convince corrections officials they can cope in society.

Iowa began the program in 1998. As of July, it included 42 inmates.

Last year, Harold Williams, 48, became the first person to be released from the program. He had been confined for three years and was deemed by authorities to represent a low risk to commit another sex offense.

But by July, the former Lehigh resident was back in custody after he left a Coralville halfway house. Officials learned that he had urges to expose himself to a child but that he failed to report the urges to staff members. The information was disclosed on a routine polygraph test.

Deputy Iowa Attorney General Gordon Allen said state officials haven't decided whether to relocate the inmates who sued, make changes at Newton or appeal Pratt's order, which says the conditions were more restrictive than when men served their original sentences.

Pratt noted that the inmates had black-and-white televisions in their cells but no access to radios and that their cells are marked with yellow tags to indicate a sexually violent predator.

"Factually, it's close to accurate, but I differ as to whether it is an unconstitutional condition," Allen said. "They are in the same unit that the state keeps federal pretrial detainees under contract with the federal government. They have the same privileges."

Wilson, the civil liberties lawyer, said Pratt's ruling "upholds an important principle that we punish people for crimes, not just because we don't like them."

He estimated that four inmates are being confined under the alleged conditions, but as many as 80 men, most of whom have been moved to the Cherokee Mental Health Institute, have been subjected or will be subjected to them.

Prisoners are generally allowed to work, allowed visits to the commissary and library, have radios and televisions, have writing privileges, can have several telephone calls, and have access to religious services, Pratt's ruling said. But at Newton, he wrote, the men have limited media access, lights are on 24 hours, food and medicine are sent through small openings in 8-foot by 8-foot cells, and phone calls are limited to one per week.

Pratt said the conditions are "designed for convicted criminals being punished for disciplinary infractions."

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