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Officials at California's most notorious prison won the right to block inmates from receiving printed e-mail messages though the regular US mail, in a ruling by a state appeals court Tuesday.

"We conclude that given the unique characteristics of e-mail, the ban on receipt by regular mail of Internet-generated material was neither arbitrary nor irrational and was logically related to the prison's legitimate security concerns," reads the decision by the California Court of Appeal, First Appellate District, overturning a lower court ruling.

The appellate ruling settled a First Amendment suit filed by inmate Aaron Collins, a lifer at the maximum security Pelican Bay State Prison. Collins is one of nearly 300 subscribers nationwide to a service called INMATE Classified, which specializes in providing prisoners with a limited Internet presence, hosting inmate's personal Web pages and forwarding them hard copies of any e-mail sent to their inmate.com address.

In 1998, Pelican Bay officials reacted to the service by adopting a new policy prohibiting inmates from receiving anything originating from the Internet. Collins, until recently aaronc@inmate.com, sued, arguing that his free speech rights were violated by the ban. A state trial judge agreed, ruling that the prison couldn't prohibit otherwise-allowed material simply because it originated online.

Spam terror

In overturning that ruling, the appeals court Tuesday accepted the prison's argument that e-mail, even in printed form, could threaten prison security. The court cited testimony by a police detective who claimed that "ascertaining the source of e-mail messages can be difficult because senders can hide or disguise their identity more easily than can those who send regular mail."

The court also agreed with officials that allowing printed e-mail to reach inmates would lead to an "avalanche" of such mail, overwhelming prison screeners tasked with keeping coded messages, narcotics and weapons out of the prison -- a prospect exacerbated by "the likelihood that their e-mail would include junk mail or 'spam' as well as personal communications."

Pelican Bay warehouses approximately 3500 inmates, half of whom are isolated from virtually all human contact in the prison's hi-tech Security Housing Unit (SHU), a frequent target of human rights organizations. ®

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