Julia Scheeres, Prison's Printed Web Info OK for Inmates, Wired News, Sept. 11, 2002.
U.S. District Court in San Francisco has struck down a California prison
policy that bars inmates from receiving material printed from the
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
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
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