New frontier on inmates' rights - the Web

Arizona courts take up legality of a state law restricting inmate information online.

Arizona's state prison dominates the skyline of this small desert town southeast of Phoenix, its perimeter a dense network of chain-link fences, guard towers, and concertina wire. For nearly a century, the state's worst criminals have been sent here to serve their sentences or to await execution in isolated captivity.

But that isolation is coming to a high-tech end. Today, the pervasive Internet has touched even this forbidding place, where a convicted killer now stands at the center of a growing controversy over just how far inmates' rights extend on the World Wide Web.

Beau Greene was a 29-year-old drifter when he killed University of Arizona music professor Roy Johnson in 1995. But after Greene was sent to death row, information about him was posted on a prisoner-advocacy website, including sympathetic details about his affection for cats. Johnson's family was so outraged that two years ago they persuaded Arizona's legislature to make it a crime for inmates' information to appear online.

Prisoners are rarely given direct access to the Internet, and never in Arizona, say officials. Arizona's Department of Corrections (DOC) began punishing inmates whose personal information - sent by mail, or passed through friends or relatives - appears on the Web sites of prisoner-advocacy groups.

Members of the Canadian Coalition Against the Death Penalty are bitter about the action. Arizona officials "hope to blackmail webpage owners into submission by punishing those whom our work is trying to help," says David Parkinson, co-director of the Toronto-based group. In protest, the Coalition posted information on all Arizona death-row inmates so none could be singled out for discipline.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) took up their case last summer with a lawsuit against the Arizona DOC. In mid-December, District Judge Earl Carroll placed a temporary injunction on the enforcement of the Arizona statute. In his decision, Carroll cited the irreparable harm the law posed to First Amendment free-speech rights. The constitutionality of the law will be taken up again in the next few months.

Advocacy online

Critics say the Arizona measure violates the free-speech rights of inmates and their supporters and that it targets only prisoner-advocacy groups since the Corrections Department continues posting information about death-row inmates on its own website.

David Fathi, an attorney for the ACLU's National Prison Project, calls the law unconstitutional. "It's not about prison security," he says. "It's not as if they're trying to prevent someone from sending instructions into prison for how to make a bomb, or plans on how to escape."

But Steve Twist questions whose rights are being violated when inmates gain even indirect access to the Web. A Johnson family friend who championed victims' rights as assistant Arizona attorney general in the 1980s, Twist says online postings sympathetic to Greene "were deeply traumatic" for Roy Johnson's survivors. "It's just another wanton, needless infliction of pain that should not be permitted in a charitable society."

A national concern

Similar conflicts have occurred around the country, as prisons struggle to fashion new rules governing Internet access. Sometimes those conflicts are resolved in court.

For example, following an ACLU lawsuit in California, a federal judge affirmed the right of inmates to receive e-mail correspondence.

But Oregon officials took action on their own against a convicted serial killer who was selling his wildlife drawings on the Internet. And in New York's Champlain Valley, where Scott Geddes raped and killed Susan Anderson nine years ago, her relatives began a petition drive to prohibit Geddes from operating a website he created with outside help. "It sickened me when I saw it," Anderson's brother, Randy LeMieux, said. "Basically, (Geddes is) looking for other victims, the way I look at it."

Constitutional hurdles

But banning websites from posting inmate information may pose constitutional hurdles.

The Internet "has broken down many traditional walls, and in theory gives prisoners access to the outside world to plead their cases," says Tracy Westen, a professor of media law at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communications. "But to retaliate against prisoners for cooperating with citizens who have full First Amendment rights seems to diminish the public's rights."

Citing the ACLU lawsuit, Arizona prison officials declined to comment.

But Arizona DOC spokesman Gary Phelps has said that the law deters crimes by a "death row subculture" that attempts to scam outsiders via the Internet. Prisoners have preyed on women with personal ads and raised thousands of dollars through online defense funds, he says. "One inmate on death row, who is no longer with us, told investigators that it's a game," that the prisoners "have to get something out of everyone."

Mr. Westen agrees that there's a potential for inmates to perpetrate crime on the Internet but adds that "anyone could use the Web for illegal purposes." Since outgoing correspondence is screened, "there are ways prison officials could control how inmates use the Internet short of prohibitions directed by the Arizona law," he says.

The ACLU's Mr. Fathi is more strident "We see these (laws) as periodic attempts to silence prisoners," he says, "and keep the eyes of the public away from what goes on in our nation's prisons and jails, where two million American citizens live."

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