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Court opens prison door for Web mail

Siding with prisoners, a federal judge rules that California inmates can receive letters containing material that's been printed from the Internet.

California prison inmates can receive letters containing material that's been printed from the Internet, a federal judge has ruled.

Siding with prisoners, U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken issued a ruling this week banning the California Department of Corrections from continuing to enforce a policy that prohibits prisoners from receiving e-mail and Web material in printed form.

Prisoners do not have Internet access, but many are mailed copies of e-mails or news clippings that have been printed out from the Web. Some also have signed up for prison pen pal sites, Web clearinghouses that allow people to strike up a correspondence with an inmate by sending an e-mail that is later printed out and forwarded to the prisoner.

The Department of Corrections said it had instituted the policy in some prisons to protect security and stave off a massive influx of e-mails to inmates. Lawyers for the department argued that Internet material threatened jail security because it could contain coded messages and is not easily traceable.

However, Wilken called the decision to ban Internet material "arbitrary," saying prison officials could adopt less-restrictive means of dealing with their concerns about safety and mail volume, including restricting the number of letters or pages each inmate is entitled to receive.

The judge said prison officials hadn't proved that printed e-mails were more likely to contain coded messages than typed letters or that Internet communications are harder to trace.

"The evidence in record suggests that Internet-produced materials are, in fact, easier to trace than anonymous letters," the judge wrote.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Northern California had challenged the policy on behalf of Pelican Bay prisoner Frank Clement, saying it violated free-speech rights. Clement filed a complaint about the policy after mail from an Internet pen pal was returned to the sender.

ACLU attorney Ann Brick applauded this week's ruling in favor of the prisoners. "Denying them the ability to receive copies of material from the Internet is completely out of step with the way people communicate with each other and obtain information today," Brick said in a statement.

Prison officials said they were still examining the decision, but that it would likely slow down the mail delivery process for all inmates. "We're disappointed, of course, because it does make our work more difficult," said Margot Bach, a Department of Corrections spokeswoman.