California Prisoners Want Free Speech, Not Free Weights

As most U.S. citizens celebrated America's 221st Independence Day [earlier this month], the California penal system was preparing to wrangle with the U.S. Supreme Court over the issue of prisoner's rights. The outcome of this week's Supreme Court case, "Esteban Caliban and Ed Douglass v. the California Department of Corrections," will determine whether or not prisoners are constitutionally entitled to have access to personal computers.For more than two years, a diverse group of prisoners serving life sentences in California state penitentiaries as a result of the state's unique "Three Strikes" law --whereby defendants who have already been imprisoned twice are automatically sentenced to die in prison-- have redirected their focus on the right to counsel, eschewing a possible retrial for themselves in order to put their prisons on the stand. While the recent rush to settle Cyberspace enters a period of cruise control, America's fastest-growing minority population, U.S. prisoners, are starting to catch up with the Joneses. In California prisons, computers are not available for prisoners to use during recreational hours. Instead, men who enter the penal system--a disproportionate number of whom are African-American and Latino--are encouraged to "work" on their bodies. The result is gang-related tattoos, bulging muscles, drug use and, in some cases, female hormone treatments. Michelle Foo-Kwo, one of the lawyers representing Caliban and Douglass in this week's Supreme Court case, argues that this "exclusive emphasis on the prisoners' bodies" is a violation of the same human rights charter perennially touted by the U.S. in critique of such repressive regimes as China, Iraq, and Cuba. "A prisoner in the California penal system is just another body to restrain," says Foo-Kwo, "there is never a person behind bars."While recreational access to computers may not automatically assign a face and an emotional history to every inmate, advocates of the Caliban-Douglass case believe a de facto prohibition on a certain kind of social development within prisons is largely to blame for the increasing wedge between America's "minority" and majority populations. "There are two systems now," says Esteban, one of the two prisoners whose name appears on this week's Supreme Court proceedings, "there's the systems Whites administer and make money off of and then there's the system that takes us Blacks and Latinos in and never lets us out again. All we're asking is that the two be networked together." Although Mr. Caliban is not formally trained in computer science, like many other imprisoned Americans, he has witnessed the rebirth of the Information Age from a critical distance. Caliban feels that America's prisoners are particularly suited to benefit from the thousands of virtual communities the Internet has reportedly created within both the U.S. and abroad. "I am not permitted to live beside other Americans, Americans who are not prisoners, because of the crimes I have committed," the 27 year-old Esteban continues, "but why don't I have a right to learn from and talk with people outside of prison?"In an era of gated communities, the concrete boundaries between those sentenced to a life of repression and those bestowed with the privileges of free expression grow more ponderous by the minute. Ironically, none of the "free" speech proponents who have recently waged a high publicity campaign on the Internet using electronically painted blue ribbons and the word "netizen" have made any mention of this disparity between those who have access to the media and those for whom the media is just another White ghetto."Writing e-mail isn't going to take away the pain of being separated from my family," writes Douglass, in one of the documents to be reviewed by the Supreme Court this week, "but being able to use a computer now means being able to read and write... and I am not going to give up my right to speak in this country."Whether or not free weights will be replaced by free speech in California's burgeoning prison cities will be decided by the Supreme Court in late August.(South to the Future's World Wide Wire Service is a weekly feed of technology and media news commentary and satire.)

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