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Court cracks down on California inmate e-mail

A state appeals court sides with prison officials who warn that an influx of inmate e-mail could lead to overworked mailrooms and security breaches.

    Aaron Collins was looking for a few good pen pals.

    So he bought an online classified ad, complete with his picture, that described him as an "intelligent, educated and caring person" who's "not afraid to shed a tear." He wanted to correspond with Christian women who were caring and nonjudgmental, and he offered to help writers who wanted to talk to someone "experienced in gangs, drugs, violence and prison culture."

    But Collins--an inmate at maximum security Pelican Bay prison in California--won't be getting any e-mail back soon. A state appeals court ruled this week that inmates can't receive e-mail in any form, even if the material is printed out and sent to them via the postal service.

    In a case that questioned whether Internet material should be treated the same as other content sent by mail to inmates, the court sided with prison officials who warned that an influx of inmate e-mail could lead to overworked mailrooms and security breaches.

    Prisoners rights advocates are lambasting the decision, saying prohibitions on Internet content are arbitrary and wrong.

    "It's ridiculous to justify banning certain types of mail just because the mailroom is understaffed," said Kara Gotch, public policy coordinator of the National Prison Project of the American Civil Liberties Union.

    "The fact that it's e-mail really has no significance," she said, adding that any inmate who wants to perform illegal acts already can do it through the regular postal service.

    Under the ruling, material from a magazine Web site would be barred while identical content in the form of a page torn from the magazine would be allowed. Under the strictest interpretation, a mother could not include a printout of an e-mail from her son in a package sent to her inmate husband.

    And while all Web material could be barred under the ruling, state prison officials said they don't plan to go that far. Russ Heimerich, a spokesman for the California Department of Corrections, said people on pre-approved correspondence lists--such as inmates' relatives--can continue to send Web material.

    "The occasional press clipping is not what we're after," Heimerich said. "We're after bulk e-mail from anonymous sources."

    Collins, who is serving a 49-year term for robbery and vehicle theft, had signed up with Inmate Classified, one of many Web sites that have cropped up in recent years to connect prisoners with the outside world. The sites are designed to make it easier for people to find prisoners to correspond with and to help socialize inmates who are returning to society.

    Because most prisoners do not have access to computers, the sites type in the information from the inmate and then print out responses and mail them to the inmate. They include regular mail addresses, so people can exchange letters.

    The sites have been controversial from the onset. Critics say they could prompt prisoners to prey on children or scam lonely pen pals out of money. Supporters say they help with prisoner rehabilitation and encourage people to write inmates who might not otherwise have any human contact outside prison walls.

    The current case started in 1998, when the warden at Pelican Bay in Crescent City, Calif., issued a ban on "Internet-related materials." Prison officials warned that e-mail posed a special threat, particularly because it's easy to disguise a sender's identity and because problems such as spam, or junk mail, could overwhelm mailroom workers.

    Collins, an Inmates Classified subscriber since 1997, challenged the ban. After hearing from both sides, a lower court overturned it, saying e-mail should be treated the same as any other type of mail.

    The warden appealed, and this week, the First District Court of Appeals in California sided with prison officials. The judges cited the high volume of e-mail, sender anonymity and fears that Internet material could hide criminal communications.

    "We conclude that given the unique characteristics of e-mail, the ban on receipt by regular mail of Internet-generated material was neither arbitrary nor irrational and was logically related to the prison's legitimate security concerns," the three-judge panel wrote.

    Some jails already ban Internet content, including institutions in New York, Florida and several in California. Collins' case is believed to be the first suit to challenge the ban.

    Members of Web-based prisoner correspondence services say they've already noticed a crackdown on Internet content.

    To get around the ban, Carol Prindle, a volunteer with Nevada-based Prison Pals, urges letter writers to copy all Web page material into a Word document and remove all traces of URLs before sending it out to a prisoner.

    Still, she wonders why the court is treating e-mail differently from regular mail.

    "I don't understand what the big deal is," she said. "It's not as if the prisoners have Internet access."