JDI IN THE NEWS - 2003

Nicholas M. Horrock, Arizona Prison Ban Struck Down, Washington Times, May 20, 2003.

WASHINGTON, May 20 (UPI) -- Prisoner-rights groups are closely watching a proposed rule in Florida Wednesday that would bar inmates from "advertising" for pen pals and other outside contacts after last week winning a major federal court ruling in Arizona that struck a law barring inmates from letting information appear on the Internet, advocacy officials said.

Tracy Lamourie, a director of the Canadian Coalition Against the Death Penalty, said if Florida adopts the rules, proposed earlier this year, her group and others might consider another legal challenge. The proposed Florida rule would become part of prison regulations and would bar prisoners from advertising for anything.

"Inmates who post ads or have ads posted with the assistance of another person shall be subject to disciplinary action," the Florida regulation says.

The Arizona ruling and actions in other states underscore the power of the Internet both as a tool for social advocacy groups and a place where critics say prison inmates can make improper contacts and endanger the public.

U.S. District Judge Earl H. Carroll, sitting in Phoenix, ruled Friday that when Arizona moved to bar prison inmates from directly or indirectly providing information for the Internet it violated not only the prisoner's First Amendment rights, but also the rights of advocacy groups who set up Web pages.

Under pressure from the widow of a murder victim, the Arizona legislature passed a law in 2000, House Bill 2376, which forbade prisoners from communicating with any organization that had a Web site and from allowing their names and material about them to be displayed on the Internet, even if they had no control over its use.

The widow, Stardust Johnson, noticed in 1999 that the man who is serving a life sentence in the Arizona State Penitentiary for brutally beating her 59-year-old husband to death in 1995, had a Web page advertising for people to correspond with him through a service called "PrisonPenPals.com." Penpals, she told an Arizona legislative committee, was an Internet provider that sold prison inmates Web pages for $19.95.

The ad, she said, showed the inmate, Beau John Greene, holding a kitten, portraying him as a submissive person and gave no hint he had committed a crime in 1995 that prosecutors called "heinous and very depraved."

Johnson wanted to know what gifts, money and pen pals Greene acquired through the ad.

Johnson and other witnesses told the committee that access to these Web pages made it possible for inmates to stalk former victims, carry out fraudulent activity, and make improper contacts with children and other unsuspecting people.

Inmates in Arizona prisons did not have direct access to the Internet, but communicated with Internet providers by sending a letter. Under Johnson's prodding and the pressure of prison officials, the legislature passed a law that said "an inmate shall not receive mail from a communication service or service provider or remote computing service."

In addition to paid providers, prison-rights advocacy groups such as the Canadian Coalition Against the Death Penalty, Citizens United for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, and Stop Prisoner Rape use the Internet to press social issues.

The Canadian Coalition puts pictures on the Web of inmates from around the world facing death sentences and publishes the details of legal cases where there have been questions about fairness and the guilt or innocence of the prisoner.

The coalition came under attack from an Alabama state Sen. Bill Armistead, R-Columbiana, who said it gave "death row inmates a forum, on the World Wide Web, to vent all their thoughts against society, along with so-called poems and artwork."

Shortly after the Arizona law was passed, prison authorities passed a regulation that even if prisoners did not purposefully lend their names and case details for a Web page, they could face punishment within the prison and possible criminal charges. The prisoners were told it was their responsibility to have their names removed from the Internet though the regulations prohibited their getting in touch with the providers.

The ACLU filed a lawsuit in July 2002 charging that the law's purpose was to "suppress the flow of information from prisoners to the outside world, and to chill the advocacy of plaintiffs and other anti-death penalty and prisoner-rights organizations."

The suit said the "Internet has revolutionized social political advocacy.

"In the past, advocacy had to pay for postage and stationary to send information to their members and supporters, and these costs imposed limits on the number of persons these groups could reach with their message. Now such groups can make information available to an unlimited number of persons at no marginal cost simply by posting it on the organization's Internet Web site."

Prison experts agree the Internet has become a powerful tool for spreading information on bad conditions in prisons, abuse of prisoners and other difficulties.

Many advocates, like Lamourie, agree some prison ads are inappropriate, but that this is offset by need to have some sort of human contact with the outside world for the 2 million prisoners in American institutions.

Carroll found that in addition to protecting victims, the Arizona's law had the intention of silencing outsiders, the advocacy groups that used the Web pages. He found that prisoners trying to misuse contacts could be prevented from doing so by current regulations that allow mail to be read by authorities and that other monitoring powers could also protect the public.

"The statutes codifying HB 2376 are not rationally related to legitimate penological objectives and are therefore unconstitutional," he wrote. He ordered Arizona prison authorities to immediately stop enforcing the law.