However, Arizona prison officials there is more to the law than alleged suppression of speech. The families of murder victims were horrified when they learned that their loved ones' killers has postings on the Web asking for pen pals and professing their innocence without revealing all the details of their crimes.
Jennifer Johnson Lopez was disgusted when she found out that her father Roy Johnson's convicted killer, Beau Greene, appeared in a picture of a Web site searching for pen pals. Convicted killers are prohibited from contacting their victims' families in any way, and Roy Johnson's family, believing that Greene had violated their privacy, urged the Arizona state legislators to pass a law prohibiting other prisoners from telling what may be distorted versions of their stories.
"The law started when the wife and daughter of the victim of a homicide came across a picture of her father's killer, Beau Greene, and he was talking about how he was such a great lover of cats," said Gary Phelps, chief of staff for the Arizona Department of Corrections. "They were very upset, and she [the daughter] felt that her privacy had been violated."
Phelps also pointed out, despite the ACLU's arguments, that the law is also intended to buffer prison security. He recalled a 1997 foiled prison escape where Floyd Bennett Thornton Jr., a death row inmate, and his wife Rebecca were killed in a hail of gunfire. Thornton had enlisted his wife's help in his attempted escape as she fired a semiautomatic rifle at authorities before guards killed her and her husband near the prison fence.
Phelps said that further investigation showed that inmates were using the Internet to solicit help in escape plans.
"As we were investigating the incident we found that some inmates were using a very remote Internet access system to try to solicit help with escapes, escape routes, maps," he said.
An Inmate’s Alleged ‘Catch-22’
Still, the ACLU argues that the Arizona law is too broad. Inmates, the federal complaint alleges, have received notices from officials who threaten to charge them with crimes or add time to their sentences if they do not tell the advocacy groups to remove their names from their sites.
However, the prisoners, under the law, cannot contact the sites, leaving them in a no-win situation.
"It's really a Catch-22," said Fathi. "The prisoners are told to contact the sites and get their name off the sites or risk being charged with a crime. But if they contact the sites, they are still violating the law."
New York has a similar Internet prisoner access law forbidding inmates from receiving mail from third-party services. However, they are allowed to send mail to these services, as long as they disclose that they are prison inmates.
Arizona prison officials, Phelps said, do their best to monitor traditional correspondence between inmates and the outside world, inspecting all their letters. However, they will do anything necessary to monitor non-traditional correspondence, especially if prison security is at risk.
"It's an issue that faces this country, even as we try to track down and protect the nation from terrorists," Phelps said.