JDI IN THE NEWS - 2002

Julia Scheeres, Prison's Printed Web Info OK for Inmates, Wired News, Sept. 11, 2002.

A U.S. District Court in San Francisco has struck down a California prison policy that bars inmates from receiving material printed from the Internet.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California sued the state on behalf of Pelican Bay prisoner Frank Clement, who claimed that the policy violated his First Amendment rights.

Clement brought the case against the California Department of Corrections after he was prohibited from using an Internet pen pal service that allows inmates to post personal ads online and receive correspondence via snail mail.

California prisoners don't have direct Internet access. A CDC spokesman said that the regulation was implemented after prison mailrooms were flooded with letters containing printouts of Web pages and e-mail messages. The volume of mail created a burden on prison staff screening inmate correspondence. He also claimed that anonymous e-mail created a security risk because it was less traceable than U.S. mail and could contain "coded correspondence" used to plan crimes outside the prison.

The court ruled that there wasn't enough evidence to support the CDC's allegations, and entered a permanent injunction to stop the state from applying the regulation.

"A prisoner's constitutional right to receive information by incoming mail is undisputed," U.S. District Court Judge Claudia Wilken wrote in her Sept. 9 decision. The ruling affects eight prisons that had adopted the policy.

Wilken said prison regulations can only impinge on this right if there is a "valid, rational connection" between the policy and a legitimate security interest, and that the CDC failed to make that connection.

She added: "There are, in short, recognized rehabilitative benefits to permitting prisoners to receive educational reading material and maintain contact with the world outside the prison gates."

"It's a tremendously significant decision," said ACLU staff attorney Ann Brick, who represented Clement. "A lot of information that is valuable to prisoners can only be found online."

Many advocacy groups, such as Stop Prisoner Rape, are Internet based, and inmates have no way of accessing the information unless someone prints it out and sends it to them, she said.

In a related case, the ACLU is suing the Arizona Department of Corrections on First Amendment grounds for a policy that bans inmates from publishing information online, such as pen pal requests or personal Web pages.