By Neil Meyer
Times guest columnist
“Clothes make the man” – Attributed to Mark Twain and Erasmus
Prisoners currently housed at the George W. Hill Correctional Facility, the county jail in Delaware, are routinely transported to appear in person at the media court to process their cases. When they appear, they are forced to wear the same clothes they wear in prison, whether the uniform is a navy shirt and navy sweatpants or a red shirt and red sweatpants or a shirt brown with brown sweatpants. These prisoners are almost always handcuffed and shackled when not in courthouse holding cells.
When a defendant in prison attire appears before a jury, it is considered to be a constant reminder of his imprisonment implicit in his distinctive and identifiable attire. Courts have recognized that this can affect a juror’s judgment. Compelling a defendant to wear prison clothes serves no essential state policy, and the convenience of prison administrators to keep their inmates in the same clothes is not sufficient justification for the practice. (See, United States Supreme Court case Estelle v. Williams, 425 US 501 (1976)).
Jurors can easily become biased or prejudiced when confronted with a defendant wearing prison clothes. The fact that they are imprisoned, as evidenced by their clothing, is irrelevant to determining whether they are guilty of any pending criminal charges. Likewise, the same judge who sees the defendants for the preliminary hearings and to schedule the trial will also preside over their trials. There can be up to a dozen appearances before a judge before a trial begins. Having judges repeatedly see prisoners wearing prison clothes can erode the judge’s ability to presume their innocence or conduct a fair trial.
In contrast, many defendants appear in court or their preliminary hearings and hold conferences “from the street” after posting bail and wear their own civilian clothes. Since they are dressed as “free people”, it should be easier for a judge to assume that the accused before him is innocent. Certainly, unlike most jurors, judges have years of experience as lawyers and strive to conduct themselves in a neutral manner. But doesn’t it stand to reason that defendants in civilian clothes have an advantage in the way their cases are handled compared to defendants in prison clothes?
Other prisoners appearing before Delaware County judges have been able to appear in plain clothes in the past for their preliminary hearings and planning conferences. These prisoners are those who are incarcerated in federal facilities while facing criminal charges in Delaware County. Additionally, some prisoners incarcerated in other Pennsylvania counties will be transported from their “home” prison in civilian clothes, then appear before their Delaware County judge in civilian clothes, and then when finally returned to their prison. “original”. being forced to change into prison clothes as they continue to be incarcerated in their home jail. Thus, there is a precedent for prisoners to appear in plain clothes for their regular court appearances that do not yet involve juries.
The objections to allowing this to happen come down to safety and cost. The argument regarding security is that if prisoners are dressed in civilian clothes while being transported to and from court and then appearing in court, this will increase the possibility of them attempting to escape and if they escape elude and evade authorities by wearing street clothes Clothing. Additionally, there is the perceived risk that it will be easier for plainclothes prisoners to somehow conceal weapons or other contraband in their personal clothing and then use these articles against correctional officers, deputy sheriffs or other members of the community. But no one disputes that prisoners must appear without handcuffs or chains. These same items restrict an individual’s ability to run or move freely and must continue to be used. In addition, when an individual is transferred to a prison, their clothing and personal effects are carefully examined to ensure that any contraband items are separated from their authorized personal effects and that they are not at any time returned to the prisoner. Each time he leaves and returns to the prison after appearing in court, the prisoner may additionally be searched and scanned.
It will cost more, opponents will say, because it will take prison officers more time to retrieve the prisoner’s civilian clothes from storage, examine the clothes, allow the prisoner to change from their prison clothes to their civilian clothes , then search and scan the prisoner in his civilian clothes. This process should be repeated in reverse when prisoners are returned to the Delaware County Jail. More time means more work for correctional officers and they will have to be paid for that extra time. But this added cost should pay dividends in the form of fostering confidence in the justice system not only by the defendants, but also by members of the community who know these defendants and want to ensure that they receive such fair treatment. as possible through the judicial system. . And that fair treatment should include the ability to appear “on equal footing” with “street” defendants who are free to wear their own civilian clothes during their pre-trial appearances before their judges.
Control of the county jail is currently being transferred from a private contractor, The Geo Group, Inc., to the county government. More so, with prison reform becoming popular, the time has come for this type of change. Such a change will demonstrate quite visibly that the prison supports the concept of its inmates presumed innocent pending trial and that the county supports the concept of its citizens presumed innocent pending trial.
Neil Meyer is a practicing media lawyer.