Human Rights

Death Row Unplugged

In mid-July, Arizona began enforcing a two-year-old law banning prisoners from contributing information about their cases to Web sites run by outside organizations.

"They are sentenced to death, not to silence," Tracy Lamourie, one of the founders of the Canadian Coalition Against the Death Penalty, recently told the Advocate News of Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Officials in the state of Arizona have a different point of view. In mid July, the state began enforcing a two-year-old law banning prisoners from contributing information about their cases to web sites run by outside organizations.

Toronto NOW, the city's local independent weekly newspaper, reported that the Arizona bill would "control and censor Web pages for death row inmates" provided by the Toronto-based Canadian Coalition Against the Death Penalty (CCADP). "The Coalition has teamed up with the American Civil Liberties Union to challenge the state regulation [HB 2376] in court," the paper added. "But we don't know what's sadder. Arizona's need to further dehumanize prisoners about to be murdered by the state or the fact that the coalition maintains over [450] web pages for death-row prisoners across the U.S."

Tracy Lamourie and Dave Parkinson run the Canadian Coalition Against the Death Penalty. Via several email exchanges they told me that of the 450 web pages of death row prisoners that they maintain, 370 are living on death row, 4 have been released and 8 had been re-sentenced. Parkinson wrote that "10 percent of American death row prisoners have a page on our site. We also have pen pal requests for hundreds more."

The idea, for the web pages Lamourie has said, is to give a voice to a segment of society that is often written off by the public and to remember those who were executed. "It isn't glorifying anyone to allow them a voice before they are executed -- to allow them to send us reports of abuses going on in the prison, legal issues in their cases, even writings and poetry detailing life in a cage waiting to be killed."

Lamourie told me that she and Parkinson founded CCADP after they heard about the case of Jimmy Dennis. "This," said Lamourie is "a Pennsylvania case of actual innocence that was garnering little or no attention or support. After reviewing the legal materials realizing the credibility of his claims of innocence, we set up the first CCADP web page - devoted to the Jimmy Dennis case - and included information about the behavior of the police as well as witness statements, photos and contact information. Dennis has since gained the support from people around the world, and web pages for him have sprung up in the UK, Germany, Singapore, and elsewhere. Dennis is now being represented by a large law firm in Washington who were specifically seeking a case of actual innocence. We hope and expect to hear that Jimmy Dennis will be exonerated in the not too distant future."

For many of the isolated, depressed and desperate prisoners, CCADP's web pages often serve as their only lifeline. One inmate on Texas' death row wrote: "I want to thank you. I do not dramatize or exaggerate when I tell you I believe you have served as a conduit that saved my life. In the despair that can overwhelm us here, I was very seriously considering suicide or waiving my appeals. Because of you I have found reason for fighting, reason for living, and happiness beyond measure."

Another wrote: "Your site has changed my life, it taught me to love to write, except when it gets over 100 degrees in my tiny cell. But it helped me hang on to life; most times while on death row I wanted to give up and die, not only cause someone was gone because of me or cause I lost everything. But I felt like I was worthless. [Because of you]... I was blessed with another chance."

Not everyone believes prison inmates should have access to the Internet, let alone have their cases publicized through special web pages. "I think they [CCADP] are just misguided individuals," East Baton Rouge, Louisiana Assistant District Attorney John Sinquefield told the Advocate News. Sinquefield, who has prosecuted death penalty cases, said the people running the Web site aren't related to the victims of "the people slaughtered by some of the worst, most heinous criminals around." Sinquefield added that he thought CCADP is "intervening in something that's not really their business. I think they should stay in Canada. I'm sure there's plenty of criminals up there to keep them busy."

Several members of victim's rights groups have also found the web pages for prisoners unsettling. "These people are bad dudes," Frank Parish, a board member of the National Organization of Parents of Murdered Children, whose stepdaughter was abducted from the parking lot of a Houston grocery store and murdered, told Wired News. "It doesn't bother me at all that they don't have their Bill of Rights. They forfeited those when they made the deliberate choice to violate the law."

Arizona Silences Inmates

On July 18, 2002, according to the Canadian Coalition's website (CCADP), the organization filed suit in the Arizona courts "to have the law that attempts to cut off communication between advocacy groups and prisoners declared unconstitutional." The ACLU is representing the CCADP, Citizens United for Alternatives to the Death Penalty and Stop Prisoner Rape in this action.

Because of HB 2376 and the "actions now being taken against prisoners by ADOC" [Arizona Department of Corrections], CCADP has decided to place all Arizona death row prisoners online, to "ensure they are not effectively silenced by this law."

In actuality, prisoners do not have direct access to the Internet. The ACLU explained in a letter to Terry Stewart, Director Arizona Dept of Corrections that inmates "have no access to computers... linked to the outside world." What the law is trying to prevent, the ACLU claimed, is "correspond[ence] or attempt[s] to correspond with a communications service provider or remote computing service."

What the prisoners have had access to is the ability to communicate with outside organizations that have set up web pages on their behalf. These days, with so many legitimate questions raised about falsely convicted and incarcerated prisoners on death row, it's common sense to allow prisoners an outlet to talk about their lives and cases. Especially so, given the recent number of cases involving prisoners - now numbering more than 100, including six from Arizona - removed from death row after information that they had not committed the crimes they were convicted and sentenced for was discovered.

According to CCADP, the statute that went into effect July 2000 reads:

"EXCEPT AS AUTHORIZED BY THE DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS, AN INMATE SHALL NOT HAVE ACCESS TO THE INTERNET THROUGH THE USE OF A COMPUTER, COMPUTER SYSTEM, NETWORK, COMMUNICATION SERVICE PROVIDER OR REMOTE COMPUTING SYSTEM.

Inmates are prohibited from sending or receiving mail from an Internet service provider or "remote" computing company. Any inmate found in violation of this statute "is guilty "of a Class 1 misdemeanor," and could be denied "earned release credits." In addition, the statute applies if "any person accesses the provider's or service internet web site at the inmate's request."

In a letter from the Arizona Department of Corrections, prisoners have been advised that to "avoid possible criminal charges and/or disciplinary sanctions," they need to have their names "removed" from the CCADP web sites "within three (3) weeks." Officials will be monitoring the web site and if "your name/information etc. has not been removed... or is located on any other web site on the internet system, disciplinary actions WILL BE administered and possible criminal charges may result."

CCADP Stands Firm

In response to the ADOC, CCADP's Directors Dave Parkinson and Tracy Lamourie advised Arizona authorities that although they've received the inmate's request for removal, they will not comply. "We believe that ANY and ALL requests received by the CCADP from the State of Arizona, regarding removal of information from the internet," Parkinson and Lamourie wrote," have been made under duress and as a direct result of Prison Administration trying to coerce and intimidate prisoners through threats of retaliation, punishment and/or criminal charges."

The CCADP insists that it holds the rights to all the materials received from inmates before the statute went into effect and it will continue to post these materials "with or without the permission of the prisoner in question. Prisoners are not aware when they contact us that we may or may not comply with the prisoners request for removal at a later date."

The Coalition also announced its intention of creating web pages for all Arizona death row prisoners, "with or without their knowledge or consent" and promised to "diligently scour the internet to locate any and all current postings by prisoners that may not yet be deleted and copy them as well to include on our new Arizona Prisoners section."

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Bill Berkowitz is a longtime observer of the conservative movement.