Katharine Mieszkowski, Life, Without the Possibility of E-mail, Salon, July 10, 2003.
The Pelican Bay State Prison Web page of the California Department of
Corrections Web site boasts cabinetry, graphic arts and dry cleaning
among the vocational "personal growth opportunities" available to
The site gives directions to the maximum-security facility in the
northwest corner of California, announces visiting hours and touts the
"innovative and collaborative environment" that the joint offers to
the "state's most serious criminal offenders in a secure, safe and
disciplined institutional setting."
This mix of useful info larded with correctional
boosterism wouldn't be especially noteworthy, except for the
way it's delivered online. Because Pelican Bay
Prison administrators officially take a suspicious view of the
Even as the California Department of Corrections exploits the Web as a
great way to brag to the not-currently incarcerated public at large
about all its prisons have to offer, the state is maintaining that
prison officials should be allowed to ban all materials downloaded
from the Net, including e-mail, from reaching inmates.
California prisoners don't have Internet access, but they are allowed
to receive regular mail. So what the state is saying, essentially, is
that prisoners are not allowed snail mail that contains printouts of
information from Internet sites or e-mail messages. It's a seemingly
ludicrous position, ostensibly based on the premise that the Internet
makes accessing information so easy that prisons are about to be
overwhelmed by a flood of physical mail containing Web-page tidbits.
More than that, prison officials won't say, which leads outside
experts to speculate that maybe they're keeping mum as to the real
reason for the attempted crackdown on all things Net-related. Maybe
the real problem, they suggest, is the proliferation of "prison pen
pal sites" -- a kind of online dating service for incarcerated felons.
So far, the courts haven't agreed with the state of California. In
September 2002, a district court judge, Claudia
Walkin, ruled that in the case of Frank Clement vs. the
California Department of Corrections, the Pelican Bay policy should be
thrown out on First Amendment grounds. She also barred the California
Department of Corrections from "enforcing any policy prohibiting
California inmates from receiving mail that contains
Internet-generated information." That ruling effectively struck down
similar policies in other California prisons.
The California state attorney general is fighting to keep the ban, and
has appealed the decision. The attorney general argues that prison
officials can restrict the constitutional rights of prisoners,
including their First Amendment rights, if it serves a "legitimate
penological interest." The state maintains
that banning Web page and e-mail printouts does serve a legitimate
purpose, charging that such information could compromise security, and
that allowing Internet printouts to be sent into prisons would
overwhelm already strapped mailroom workers with sheer volume.
"First, the ease with which electronic communication can be
manipulated heightens the risk that coded messages and other
prohibited communications will be passed to prisoners and the identity
of the sender concealed," state attorneys wrote in their appeal.
The ACLU is representing the plaintiff, a Pelican Bay inmate who has
been incarcerated since 1985. Ann Brick, a staff attorney with the
ACLU in Northern California, says that the Internet is no more risky
than any other source.
"There is nothing about material printed from the Internet that makes
it any more likely to contain a coded message than anything that is
handwritten, typewritten or photocopied, and sent to a prisoner," says
"We could send the exact same material if we copied it off our Web
site into a Word document," said Lara Stemple, the executive director
of Stop Prisoner Rape. Stemple called the restriction on
Internet print-outs "absolutely idiotic." Her group submitted a
declaration in the case arguing that much of the material that it
publishes on its Web site, such as first-person accounts of prison
rape, is available nowhere else.
Lee Tien, a staff attorney with the
Electronic Frontier Foundation, which filed an amicus brief in the
case, points out that some advocacy groups can only afford to publish
online. " And even the California Department of Corrections refers
people to the Stop Prisoner Rape Web site, although it is apparently
off limits to California prisoners," he said.
The state argues that it's not the information contained in the Stop
Prison Rape Web site that is banned, just the traces of the verboten
medium -- the Internet. "Pelican Bay's policy does not prohibit
someone from writing a letter to an inmate communicating the contents
of this, or any, Web site, or purchasing the books or pamphlets
identified on the Stop Prison Rape Web site. Thus, the Pelican Bay
policy does not prevent inmates from obtaining information," asserts
the appeal. Books, letters, pamphlets, magazines and newspapers have
been good enough for prisoners for decades, so there's no reason to
complicate matters with this newfangled Internet.
As the appeal puts it: "Simply because advances in technology have
made the gathering and disseminating of information easier and less
costly does not mean that the traditional means of communication are
The sheer volume of what's already out there and could be coming into
prison mailrooms is the problem, argues the state. "The increase in
mail occasioned by the introduction of large volumes of Internet
materials would make it much more difficult for busy mailroom staff to
detect contraband and coded gang messages hidden among material
downloaded from the Internet," charge the supporting documents of the
appeal. The state's attorneys predicted "lengthy delays" in the
delivery of all prison mail if this policy isn't allowed to stand.
Attorneys for the ACLU countered in their own brief that to
"arbitrarily exclude an entire category of mail" is no way to deal
with an increase in mail volume. They suggested that there were other,
less egregious alternatives: The prison could restrict the number of
pages permitted in enclosures or the number of items of mail an
individual prisoner could receive.
Is the state of California really worried about scads of documents
from the Net clogging up prison mailrooms?
The EFF's Tien
doesn't think so. He speculates that the real motivation behind the
Pelican Bay anti-Internet rule, and others like it, is a concern about
prison pen pal Web sites, such as PrisonPenPals.com.
Such sites have inspired controversy around the country. To the horror
of one murdered 13-year-old girl's parents, a Greenwich, Conn. man
serving 30 years for first-degree manslaughter recently showed up on
one site; the convict is pictured online wearing a tuxedo, bragging
that he's "romantic and always funny," the New York Times reported.
The prison pen pal sites have inspired direct crackdown attempts. In
Arizona, House Bill 2376, passed in 2000, banned prisoners from having
information about them appear on Internet sites. The bill was inspired
by the outrage of Stardust Johnson, the widow of a murder victim who
discovered her husband's killer soliciting correspondents on
PrisonPenPals.com. On the site, the inmate
was pictured cuddling a kitten.
Arizona's legislation aimed to ban all information about Arizona
prisoners from appearing on the Internet, and had provisions for
punishing prisoners if they showed up online. But in May 2003, a
federal district judge in Phoenix ruled that the restriction violated
not only prisoners' First Amendment rights, but the rights of advocacy
groups, including the Canadian Coalition Against
the Death Penalty, a group that creates Web pages for death row
Tien argues that banning Web page and
e-mail printouts won't really solve the problem of coded messages
potentially being included in correspondence from pen pals: "I could
make an e-mail look like a letter," he says. "I could strip off the
headers, or I could copy the body of the message without the headers.
I could copy the damn thing down in ink."
Tien's observations raise a salient point:
Perhaps the California Department of Corrections should focus on
monitoring the content of prisoners' communications, rather than
tarring the medium used to generate them.