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Access Denied

Is it constitutional for Arizona to block prisoners from posting information online?

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Arizona's state prison dominates the Florence skyline, 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 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 UA music professor Roy Johnson in 1995. But after Greene was sent to death row, information about him was posted on a prisoner advocacy Web site, including sympathetic details about his affection for cats. The posting so outraged Johnson's family that, two years ago, they persuaded The Arizona 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. But Arizona's Department of Corrections has begun punishing inmates whose personal information--sent by mail, or passed through friends or relatives--appears on the Web sites of prisoner-advocacy groups.

This move has outraged members of the Canadian Coalition Against the Death Penalty. Arizona officials "hope to blackmail Web page owners into submission by punishing those whom our work is trying to help," says David Parkinson, co-director of 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 took up their case in July, with a lawsuit against the Arizona DOC. Other ACLU clients in the suit are Stop Prisoner Rape and Citizens United for Alternatives to the Death Penalty. Like the Canadian Coalition, they run Web sites devoted to prisoners' concerns,

Critics say the Arizona measure violates the free speech rights of inmates and their supporters, and targets only prisoner advocacy groups while the Corrections Department continues posting information about death row inmates on its own Web site. David Fathi, an attorney for the ACLU's National Prison Project, calls the law "unconstitutional on its face. It's not about prison security. 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," he says.

But Steve Twist questions whose rights are being violated when inmates gain even indirect access to the Web. A Johnson family friend who championed crime victims' rights as an 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."

Arizona isn't alone in this controversy. Similar free speech clashes have occurred around the country, as prisons struggle to fashion new rules governing Internet access. Often those conflicts land 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, after an article about him appeared in a local newspaper. 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 Web site he created with outside help. "It sickened me when I saw it," Anderson's brother, Randy LeMieux, told reporters. "Basically, (Geddes is) looking for other victims, the way I look at it."

Still, banning Web sites from posting inmate information raises a slew of constitution questions. 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 law professor 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."

And constitutional rights seem to be on the mind of U.S. District Judge Earl Carroll. Saying the Arizona law could cause irreparable harm to the First Amendment, on December 16 Carroll placed an injunction against enforcement of the statute until a final decision is made within the next few months.

Citing the ACLU lawsuit, Arizona prison officials wouldn't comment for this story. But speaking to the Phoenix New Times in September, Arizona DOC spokesman Gary Phelps said 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 said. "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."

Tracy 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 David Fathi is less circumspect. "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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