No More Online Friends for Indiana Prisoners

     CHICAGO (CN) – The Indiana Department of Corrections can prohibit inmates from using the Internet to advertise for pen pals, the 7th Circuit ruled.
     It adopted the restrictions in 2005 after reports emerged that inmates had been deceiving online pen pals about their release dates and the reason behind their convictions to con them out of money.
     The Indiana Department of Corrections (IDOC) ordered an investigation and discovered that 350 inmates had advertised for pen pals online, and most had publicly misrepresented themselves on the sites.
     In one alleged case, a female prisoner had convinced two separate male pen pals that she would marry them upon release and supposedly received large payments. The men did not know about each other.
     To curb fraud, the department restricted contributions to inmate trust accounts to family members and authorized individuals. Inmates were also forbidden from using the Internet to solicit money, goods and services, or pen pals.
     Two inmates filed a class action, claiming that the prohibition against advertising for pen pals violated prisoners’ First Amendment rights.
     U.S. District Judge Jane Magnus-Stinson in Indianapolis granted summary judgment to the IDOC.
     The 7th Circuit affirmed on Tuesday, saying the four-step Turner test proved that the regulation passed constitutional muster.
     “Using pen-pal websites to engage in fraud is antithetical to the rehabilitative goals of confinement,” Judge William Bauer wrote for the three-judge panel. “Here, the IDOC reasonably perceived that continuing to allow inmates to use the sites would passively enable fraud. The regulation enacted to prevent it squarely addressed the threat and is therefore constitutional.”
     Inmates still can receive “nearly unlimited correspondence” such as letters, magazines and newspapers, the court noted. They are also free to cultivate pen-pal relationships through personal contacts and from groups visiting the prison.
     In so ruling, the court rejected inmates’ claim that the regulation was redundant because deposit restriction of trust accounts was sufficient to curtail fraud. Family members or others on a prisoner’s approved-depositor list could easily collect fraudulently solicited donations and deposit them, the judges determined.
     “In our view, no single regulation can serve as a catch-all for eliminating the potential for fraud,” Bauer wrote. “Though we agree that the restriction on deposits goes a long way toward accomplishing the stated goal, we defer to the judgment of the prison administrators when it comes to deciding whether a ban on solicitation is also necessary.”
     “The Internet is a breeding ground for mischief of the sort the IDOC Commissioner feared,” he added. “When prison officials are rational in their belief that, if left unchecked, an activity will lead to fraud, we hold that banning the activity does not violate inmates’ First Amendment rights.”

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