Nevada prison officials have confiscated hundreds of portable typewriters from inmates who have used them for decades to tap out legal briefs to appeal their convictions, arguing parts of the machines could be converted into weapons.
The Department of Corrections cited two incidents of violence in recently changing the policy — one when an inmate died and another when a guard was threatened.
Inmates have filed a growing pile of lawsuits protesting the new rule, saying officials are using the security argument as an excuse to try to slow their legal complaints about overcrowded prisons and difficult living conditions.
They also say the increase in violence in the prisons is the result of failed policies that have forced more and more inmates together into smaller spaces. Trying to quell the flow of suits challenging these issues by taking away their writing tools, they say, violates their constitutional rights.
The Nevada attorney general's office filed a response asking the federal court to make clear the department "has a legal right to declare typewriters unauthorized property," and that the ban on typewriters does not violate inmate rights.
"Historically, typewriters have been an issue because their parts can be turned into weapons," said Greg Smith, a former guard and current state corrections spokesman.
"The attacks precipitated more discussion for a ban," he told the Reno Gazette-Journal.
Gary Piccinini, a senior officer with the department, said in a memo that several parts in particular are deadly. The rubber roller on one type of typewriter has a hollow piece of cylindrical metal inside that's 14 inches long and "is very heavy and could be used as a club." The cylindrical piece in the Brother typewriter "can also be made into a stabbing weapon."
The Canon typewriter has two other metal parts that can be sharpened into a slicing type weapon, he said.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada said typewriters are a critical part of the pro se legal process, in which individuals represent themselves, and efforts should be made to allow their use.
"It's disappointing that the department of corrections could not have found a middle ground that protected inmate safety while allowing some access to typewriters," said Lee Rowland, a lawyer with the ACLU's Reno office. "Inmate restrictions should be linked to actual and demonstrable safety risks, especially when they affect a fundamental right such as access to the court system."
Nicole Moon, spokeswoman for the attorney general's office, said the ban was not meant to stop lawsuits.
"The ban on typewriters was implemented for safety and security, and is in no way intended to affect inmate litigation," she said.
As with many prison systems across the country, Nevada's correctional facilities are busting at the seams.
Gov. Jim Gibbons used those words to describe the conditions during a tour of a correctional center last year, and Howard Skolnik, director of the Department of Corrections, told reporters: "To say we are in a crisis is not an exaggeration."
By last May, the state housed 13,113 inmates, 1,196 over capacity, Skolnik said. The influx forced prison officials to house inmates in program rooms, activity centers and even tents. At the Warm Springs Correctional Center last year, four inmates were being squeezed into cells measuring 12 feet by 12 feet.
The prison population is projected to top 21,000 by 2016.
At Ely State Prison, the state's only maximum-security facility, violent inmates who had been living alone now share their space, resulting in at least one death.
In December 2006, Anthony Beltran was killed, allegedly by cellmate Douglas Scott Potter.
The weapon was "the roller pin from inside the platen of the inmate's typewriter," Greg Cox, deputy director of operations for DOC, said in an affidavit. "It is easily accessible and easily concealed."
That was the first incident that sparked the typewriter ban, the attorney general's staff said in its response. The second was March 2007, when an inmate tried to stab a guard with a weapon that had been "fashioned from a piece of an inmate typewriter."
Officials announced the next day that typewriters were prohibited at Ely. The ban was extended to all prisons by May.
Inmate Russell Cohen sought injunctions in at least seven legal actions, saying the ban was unconstitutional. The state responded with its filing in June 2007.
At least 13 actions have been filed in federal court over the typewriter issue, said Alicia Lerud, a deputy attorney general. Three other U.S. cases are pending and at least four cases are in state court over the typewriter ban, she said.
Some inmates at the Ely facility say the attack on Beltran was destined to happen, regardless of the weapon used.
"It is simply irrational to blame the December 2006 attack on a typewriter, when televisions, extension cords and even prison boots have been used and are available in situations similar to the December 2006 incident," inmates Travers Greene and Paul Browning said in a handwritten motion.
Browing said Potter told him that he had "repeatedly pleaded with prison officials not to place him in the cell with Mr. Beltran and if this happened, there would be trouble."
Potter also sent prison officials three notes stating his violent intentions.
In the first, Potter said he wanted to be in a single cell: "Whoever you decide I am to live with, so make sure he is big, knows how to fight, and ain't afraid to die."
In the second, he wrote, "I give fair warning that whoever you move in I will physically assault savagely."