RENO -- 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 lawsuits 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 it clear that the prisons 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 said.
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 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.
At least 13 actions have been filed in federal court over the typewriter issue, said Alicia Lerud, a deputy attorney general.