Arizona tries to jail the internet, Index on Censorship, August 13, 2002.

Arizona state law bans prisoners in its jails from internet contact with their friends and families - and now from campaign groups trying to defend their rights. Three such groups have now recruited the American Civil Liberties Union to challenge the bans on freedom of speech grounds.

Three prisoners' rights organisations are suing jail managers in the western US state of Arizona over a new law that criminalises communications with prisoners and punishes them if information about their cases appear on websites run by their supporters.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is representing Stop Prisoner Rape (SPR), the Canadian Coalition Against the Death Penalty (CCADP) and Citizens United for Alternatives to the Death Penalty (CUADP) in their case against Terry L Stewart, Director of the Arizona Department of Corrections.

They argue that his department's enforcement of Arizona's House Bill 2376 violates both their and their prisoner contacts' first amendment rights to free speech and severely hampers their advocacy work on behalf of prisoners.

SPR, the Canadian Coalition Against the Death Penalty (CCADP) and Citizens United for Alternatives to the Death Penalty (CUADP) seek to invalidate a state law that seeks to ban all information from Arizona prisoners from being posted on the internet.

"For many prisoners, we are the only source of information about surviving sexual assault, and we rely on the internet," says Lara Stemple, executive director of SPR.

SPR, a non-profit human rights organization dedicated to ending sexual violence against men, women, and youth in all forms of detention, posts survivor stories, comments, and excerpts from prisoners' letters on its website.

"Men and women who have been raped in prison are often too ashamed to speak out," explains Stemple. "SPR's website gives survivors a chance to connect with one another, and when you are isolated, ashamed, and afraid, that connection can be a matter of life and death."

All three organisations maintain websites containing information about prisoner rights, as well as information about specific inmates.

The SPR posts contributions from inmates written about their own personal experiences of sexual abuse while incarcerated while the CUADP and CCADP websites posting of personal case information from prisoners and appeals for legal and political assistance.

The CUADP website held information from 45 prisoners in Arizona jails at the time the suit was launched. SPR regularly sends fact sheets, survivor stories, and referrals printed from its website to survivors who are still incarcerated.

"Arizona's attempts to restrict and censor the content of advocacy organizations' own websites certainly violates the Constitution and establishes a troubling precedent," says Ann Beeson, Litigation Director of the ACLU's Technology and Liberty Program.

"Prisoners and the groups that choose to assist them retain the same vital freedom of speech that all Americans do."

The bill reinforces restrictions on unmonitored inmate access to the internet and aims to restrict correspondence between prisoners and 'communication service provider[s]' or 'remote computing service[s]', though not communications with newspapers and magazines.

The law also imposes disciplinary action against inmates whose names or personal information appear on the websites. Inmates may also be disciplined if any person outside prison walls accesses a provider or service website at a prisoner's request.

The July 18 order reads in part: "Except as authorized by the department of corrections, an inmate shall not have access to the internet through the use of a computer, computer system, network, communication service provider or remote computing system. An inmate who violates this section is guilty of a class 1 misdemeanour."

The penalties include removal of good behaviour points towards parole. Prisoners whose names are spotted on the sites are issued with an order demanding that they contact the site and have their names withdrawn.

In May and June of this year CUADP was contacted by two prisoners requesting that information about them be removed from the website. CCADP has similarly been contacted by at least four inmates.

"This ill-conceived law places prisoners in a Catch-22," said Eleanor Eisenberg, Executive Director of the ACLU of Arizona. "The only way for prisoners to stop information from being posted on the Internet is to contact the very organizations the prisoners are now banned from contacting."

SPR, CCADP and CUADP are challenging the bill's 'chilling effect' on their right to free speech and its effective censorship of their public concerns about prisoner safety.

They also note that pro-death penalty organisations such as ProDeathPenalty.com and organisations which seek harsher penalties for prisoners such as the National Organisation of Parents of Murdered Children also post information about inmates, their crimes and their sentences.

To date Stewart and his department have not asked prisoners named by these pro-death penalty websites try to contact them to have their names removed. It seems that inmates are only vulnerable to punishment when their cause is taken up by organisations that try to argue their innocence on their behalf.

In its letter to Stewart, the ACLU said it believed that the legislation would be swiftly invalidated by the courts.

"There can be no doubt that the purpose and effect of this legislation is to suppress the flow of information from prisoners to the outside world, and to chill the advocacy of CCADP and other anti-death penalty and prisoner rights organizations," the ACLU letter added.

"The Internet is a vital source of news and information for millions of people in the United States and around the world," said David C. Fathi, staff counsel with the ACLU's National Prison Project.

"The government may not ban information about prisoners from the Internet any more than it could ban such information from newspapers or television."

When approached by Index on Censorship, Michael Arra, Media Relations Administrator for the Arizona Department of Corrections told the magazine that his office had no comment to make on this case "at this time".