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PLN's editor quoted in article re prisoners' access to Internet

Seattle Times, Jan. 1, 2000.
PLN's editor quoted in article re prisoners' access to Internet - Seattle Times 2000

The Seattle Times

October 8, 2000, Sunday WEEKEND EDITION

Dot-cons: Inmates take to the Web

Michelle Locke; The Associated Press

SAN QUENTIN, Calif. - Jarvis is a Buddhist who wants to convey the peace he's found through meditation. Richard would like to show you his American Indian-inspired artwork. Morris is seeking "ladies for friendship."

All three are using the Internet to get their message out. And they have something else in common: They're all prisoners on San Quentin's death row - part of a growing inmate-Internet connection.

Prisoners are still one step behind the digital revolution; no state allows them to go online directly, and they need a third party, often a commercial service, to post their material.

Still, their Web presence is substantial; type "prison inmates" into one of the larger search engines and scores of sites bounce back - everything from the come-hither to the no-nonsense Prison Legal News.

While victims'-rights advocates are furious about prison postings, others argue the Internet provides a crucial link to a closed world.

"Most of these people do not have access to a lawyer. This is really their only way to reach out and get help," says Stephen Bright of the Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta. "There will be some people that this will be the way they make contact with the free world, and I think it will contribute to correcting some injustices."
Column from death row

In 1996, it was news when mainstream media discovered that Dean Philip Carter, on California's death row for killing four women, was posting a column, "Dead Man Talkin," with the help of a San Francisco disc jockey.

Today, Carter's column is available in six languages and is one of scores of death-row journals. The father of one of Carter's victims has his own site, "Justice Against Crime Talking," that includes a link to Carter's site: a photograph of a donkey.

Many inmates take to the Internet to plead their case; several sites focus on Philadelphia death-row inmate Mumia Abu-Jamal, whose case is a rallying point for anti-death-penalty forces. Others offer an insider's view; Prison Legal News, a 10-year-old monthly edited by Washington state inmate Paul Wright, has a circulation of 3,500.

Wright went to prison in 1987, long before home page was a household term. He likens the Internet access made available to inmates to "sitting beside the information superhighway watching the traffic go by."

"This is where communications are going. This is, for example, where 100 years ago, people would have said, well, why should prisoners have access to telephones?" said Wright, speaking by telephone from the prison where he is serving a 25-year sentence for murder. "Having contact with the outside world . . . gives us a human face as opposed to the caricature that dominates the media image."

Ads raise ire

Perhaps the most controversial aspect of the new cellblock communications are prison personal ads, some of which have led to wedding vows. While inmate pen pals are nothing new, the advent of Web sites featuring pictures and glowing come-ons riles victims' advocates.

"For them to have access to the general public is outrageous," said Susan Fisher of the Sacramento-based Doris Tate Crime Victims Bureau.

Often, the pitches are singularly lacking in details, such as the request for correspondence by San Quentin death-row inmate Morris Solomon that describes him as "romantic, and loves to meet people" but does not mention the six women he murdered.

Inmate advocates say prisoners do have a free-speech right to communicate via the Internet. Beyond that, they argue, it's counterproductive to keep prisoners cut off from a world to which many will return.

"Prison is the punishment. It isn't the starting point," says Charles Sparks, an Ohio man who runs a Web site called that has signed up 1,800 inmates across the country over the past five years.

Sparks, who began PennPals as a result of his correspondence with a prisoner, said he runs the site because he believes there are decent people behind bars and wants to serve as an antidote to what he views as society's increasingly hostile attitude toward prison inmates.

In California, which has the nation's largest prison system, Department of Corrections spokeswoman Margot Bach says officials can't ban prisoners from communicating, although guards censor the mail and monitor inmate bank accounts.

Arizona lawmakers have banned inmates from posting messages on the Internet through third-party connections, but Bright dismissed that as unconstitutional and impractical - "like trying to tell Niagara Falls not to flow."

Victims' families react

Among those on the Web is death-row inmate Richard Allen Davis, who kidnapped and killed 12-year-old Polly Klaas of Petaluma, Calif., in 1993. The site, courtesy of a Canadian anti-death-penalty group, features photographs of Davis, pictures of his hand-painted craft items and a rambling letter inviting correspondence.

Marc Klaas doesn't want to share the Web with his daughter's killer.
"These guys ... have been taken out of society because we're trying to deny them access and influence," he said.

Also writing from San Quentin is Jarvis Masters, who was sent to prison for armed robbery in 1981. He was sentenced to death after being convicted in the 1985 killing of a guard. His supporters say they're sorry the guard died, but they believe Masters wasn't involved.

Masters is in a maximum-security section of death row - no phones, limited visits. His writings have been beamed across the world - essays about becoming a Buddhist and trying to meditate on death row.

"Writing has been his way to get out of prison - that and meditation," says Melody Ermanchild Chavis, a private investigator working on Masters' case. "In his book, he has said whether he lives or dies he wants people to understand he was a human being with feelings and thoughts."

Barbara Burchfield, the officer's widow, takes a different view.
"His thoughts, his feelings don't count anymore as far as I'm concerned," she said. "They were voided out when he was convicted."P.