This editorial will appear in Friday’s print edition.
State prison officials have handed one of their biggest troublemakers a major legal victory – and possibly a heap of taxpayers’ money as well.
On Thursday, a unanimous state Supreme Court ruled that the state Department of Corrections must pay convicted arsonist Allan Parmelee’s attorney fees.
The case stems from a July 2005 letter Parmelee wrote to then-prison secretary Harold Clarke. Parmelee complained about the treatment of prisoners at Clallam Bay Corrections Center.
Parmelee wrote that he had discovered what was causing all the tension at the prison: “Having a man-hater lesbian as a superintendent is like throwing gas on (an) already smoldering fire.”
Offensive? Yes, but no more so than how prison officials responded. They cited Parmelee for violating an arcane 1869 criminal libel law and gave him 10 days in isolation.
Once out of the hole, Parmelee appealed his infraction. The Court of Appeals decided in his favor two years ago, ruling that the criminal libel statute was unconstitutional.
Last year, the Legislature removed the law from the books. Public testimony established that it had not been the basis of criminal prosecution in decades – probably ever since the U.S. Supreme Court threw out a similar law 40 years ago.
Prisons have wide latitude to discipline inmates for their behavior behind bars, but Clallam Bay officials were clearly reaching if they had to rely on a wobbly law to get at Parmelee. They should have picked their battles more carefully instead of going after an inmate for what looks a whole lot like free speech.
Parmelee’s letter to Clarke was tame given this con’s history.
This is the guy who is in jail for firebombing the car of his ex-wife’s lawyer. The prisoner who has filed hundreds of harassing public records requests demanding judges, lawyers and jailers’ personnel records, photos, addresses, work schedules and birth dates. The defendant who once threatened to tear out a court reporter’s fingernails.
Corrections secretary Eldon Vail said Thursday that allowing prisoners to use insulting and defamatory language erodes authority necessary to maintain jailhouse order.
But Vail admitted that Parmelee’s case was not a perfect example. It’s one thing for a prisoner to cuss out a prison guard to his face (which Parmelee also has done). It’s quite another for an inmate to call Vail or a prison superintendent names in writing.
“Unfortunately, I think some of that comes with the territory as you move up the food chain,” he said.
Too bad that kind of logic didn’t kick in sooner – before Parmelee had racked up years of legal fees fighting the Department of Corrections’ overzealous pursuit of him.