Prison Administrators Can Enhance Security by Offering E-mail to Prisoners

By · Friday, February 20th, 2009

In a previous post, I wrote about the benefits prison administrators could realize by offering inmates access to modern technology like e-mail. Mel Lopez commented that he agreed it was important for prisoners to maintain support networks, though he had questions as to whether I thought administrators should grant e-mail access to those offenders who were not showing any intention of changing their lives. Providing e-mail access to such offenders, Mr. Lopez thought, might endanger the public further by enabling them to participate in criminal activity.

In responding to Mr. Lopez’s comment, I should begin by pointing out that, with few exceptions, the Supreme Court has held that people in prison retain First Amendment rights to communicate. Accordingly, most all prisoners have access to the U.S mail. In minimum-security camps like Taft, where I am confined, prisoners send mail out in sealed envelopes every day. In higher-security prisons, prisoners must send their mail out in unsealed envelopes so prison staff members can review all outgoing correspondence as a security precaution. In all security levels, staff members inspect all incoming correspondence before delivering it to inmates.

Consequently, my thoughts are that providing inmates access to e-mail technology would enhance the public safety, not detract from it. If prisoners retain constitutional rights to send mail out, then administrators would improve security by using technology to monitor those messages more closely. Software would enable administrators to keep accurate records of every word the prisoners sent out or received. They could program the software to flag suspicious correspondence that might indicate criminal behavior. Administrators could keep a record of people with whom the prisoner is corresponding, and the electronic monitoring would serve to enhance the interests of the public.

Prisoners would not object to the increase scrutiny. They know that all of their mail is subject to staff monitoring regardless of how they sent or received it. If they were using the email service, they would at least be able to communicate with the form of technology that seems to be of the moment in society. Whereas people may be reluctant to engage in the laborious process of writing letters, addressing envelopes, and affixing postage, they may agree to exchange email correspondence.

Since administrators must comply with both case law and the U.S. constitution in providing prisoners with access to mail, I feel convinced that they would serve the interests of society by providing e-mail access as well. Such a progressive step would enable the prisoners to work toward expanding their networks of support. It would help them feel the possibility of joining the fabric of law-abiding society. It could help prepare them for legitimate employment. Further, the enhanced opportunities for electronic surveillance could help both prison administrators and law enforcement as they strive to keep America safe.

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