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Murder victim’s sister calls for law targeting inmates’ access to personal electronics

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Monday, Sep. 24, 2012, at 10:29 p.m.

When Alexia Barnes-Heflin wrote a petition calling for the adoption of Vinny’s Law, she said she “needed to blow off some steam.”

Late last month, she saw a public Facebook post from a woman saying she’d written letters to brothers Michael and Robert Reed, both convicted of the 2009 murder of Barnes-Heflin’s brother, Vincent Barnes.

The woman wrote she was “tryin to come up with some money” — $200 — to buy one of the Reeds a personal TV.

“I thought prison was for punishment,” Barnes-Heflin said, recalling her shock. “I didn’t know that they could sit around in their cell and watch TV.”

Now via a Change.org petition named in memory of her brother, the 28-year-old Wichita woman is asking Kansas legislators and the Department of Corrections to let victims and their families decide whether to restrict an inmate’s access to personal electronics. She started the petition Aug. 29.

“I know that being able to control these luxuries will not bring our loved ones back or make us forget what happened,” Barnes-Heflin said, reading from her petition. “However, in my mind, we should have some type of control over our perpetrators.”

Others, however, say the petition, as it is written, would violate inmates’ rights and oversteps a government-controlled function: incarceration.

“Prisoners have First Amendment rights to access information that is not contrary to prison security or objectives,” Wichita criminal defense attorney Dan Monnat said. “A law can’t delegate administration of those first amendment freedoms to the discretion of victims’ families.”

Witness to murder

For Barnes-Heflin, the petition calling for Vinny’s Law is based in tragedy: She witnessed the murder of her brother, 33-year-old Vincent “Vinny” Barnes, who was shot after a trio of men came looking for cocaine at his west Wichita apartment on May 15, 2009.

Robert Reed, who discharged the gun, is serving more than 19 years after pleading guilty to second-degree murder in Vincent Barnes’ death, according to Eagle news reports.

A jury convicted Michael Reed of first-degree murder for aiding and abetting in the killing. He faces a life sentence.

The third man, Jeremy Trout, pleaded guilty to second-degree reckless murder. He was sentenced to 11 years for his role in Barnes’ death.

Barnes-Heflin and her parents, Bill and Nina Barnes, said they didn’t know prisoners could have TVs in their cells until they saw the Facebook post. “We thought maybe they would’ve had it where the general population,” Bill Barnes said, “like a big living area, where they could watch it.”

But under KDOC guidelines, inmates do have the right to buy and keep personal property using contributions from family and friends or earnings from jobs, KDOC spokesman Jeremy Barclay said.

And the list stretches beyond toiletries and playing cards.

Prisoners can buy clothing, snack foods and small appliances like hot pots and fans at onsite stores called canteens. For entertainment, there’s dominoes, chess, paint-by-number art, among other games and projects.

There also are typewriters, AM/FM radios, tape players and alarm clocks. A 4G Mp3 player sells for $54.09; 8G devices are $75.73.

A 13-inch, color flatscreen TV, which, like other items, has a clear casing to discourage contraband, costs $163.30.

Music, earbuds and coaxial cables to hook up to cable TV are available at some facilities and self-funded by inmates. They cost extra.

Cellphones and personal computers, however, are banned, Barclay said.

It’s the personal electronics — especially TVs, the family says — that Barnes-Heflin’s petition targets. She wants the KDOC to let victims and their families decide whether an inmate should have access to the audio and visual equipment.

Her father, Bill Barnes, agrees.

“You know we got people out here who are homeless and everything else, and having hard times, and here’s people who have committed crimes and they’re in jail getting TVs,” he said.

“It just doesn’t seem right. They’re in there to be punished. I know you can’t put them in a box and seal them. But you have to draw a line somewhere.”

But the KDOC says not all of its 9,474 inmates have electronics because ownership is a limited privilege, governed by a longstanding incentive program in place at its eight Kansas prisons and four satellite facilities.

Barclay stressed that the primary purpose “is not entertainment,” despite widespread public belief.

“It is merely a management tool to promote security and safety to our officers … and our inmates,” he said, adding that idle time increases the chance of rebellions and riots, aggression toward guards and fights among prisoners.

Granting or taking away the right to own gadgets is one way to manage behavior.

“There’s very little that is precious to an inmate as the limited amount of property that they have,” he said, noting while that tacking additional time onto an inmate’s sentence or levying fines is possible, it is ineffective.

“When you are talking about inmate property, you are talking about immediacy.”

Barclay declined to say whether the men convicted of Vincent Barnes’ murder owned personal electronics.

Others agree inmates should retain their rights to personal electronics. Earlier this month, someone started a counter-petition, also on Change.org, to stop Vinny’s Law.

‘They could reflect’

Barnes-Heflin said she wants to gather at least 1,000 signatures. Then she and her parents plan to take the petition to legislators and the KDOC.

By Monday afternoon, 188 supporters had signed online.

“As a family that was impacted, it almost seems unfair that they are worried about not having a TV in their cell and our son is gone,” Bill Barnes said. “The only time we get to see him is in the cemetery when we visit his grave.”

Barnes-Heflin added that her petition is a matter of preserving victims’ rights.

“We can’t control that they shot him,” she said. “I know (the petition) is not going to bring back my brother. (But) if it makes them that much more miserable, t hen they could reflect on what lifelong pain and suffering they’ve caused victims and their loved ones.”

Reach Amy Renee Leiker at 316-268-6644 or aleiker@wichitaeagle.com. Follow her at www.twitter.com/amyreneeleiker.

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