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Computers in Prison

Should prison inmates be given access to computer to do legal research for their pro se appeals, habeas petitions, peanut butter suits, etc.?  Sure, why not, one might say.  Well, this NLJ story by Sheri Qualters tells us why not.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 1st Circuit upheld a lower court's order requiring a detainee convicted of hacking a prison computer system to pay for credit-monitoring services for prison employees.

In a unanimous panel ruling on April 12 in U.S. v. Janosko, the 1st Circuit affirmed District of Massachusetts Judge George O'Toole's restitution order. Retired U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice David Souter, sitting by designation, wrote the opinion. Judge Kermit Lipez and Senior Judge Bruce Selya joined the ruling.

The appeal concerned O'Toole's order that Francis Janosko must pay the Plymouth County Sheriff's Department's $6,600 bill for credit monitoring. Court records show that Janosko hacked the Internet and employee and job applicant databases at the Plymouth County Correctional Facility in Plymouth, Mass. He was held at the prison from October 2006 through February 2007, first on a probation violation and then as a pretrial detainee.
The prison allowed Janosko and other inmates to use a computerized legal research program to work on their cases, but not the Internet or e-mail. Janosko pleaded guilty in September 2009 under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act to intentionally causing damage to a protected computer. That December, he was sentenced to 18 months in prison. He was ordered to pay several forms of restitution that he did not appeal, including $10,500 for a jail lockdown, $2,300 to replace a server and $2,000 to buy software and licenses for a replacement server.
Do they still make case law CDs?  The only way to really secure a computer from Internet hacking is to remove its physical ability to connect to the Internet.  No ethernet, no wireless, not even a modem.  Just a standalone computer with the materials on CD, DVD, or the hard drive.

BTW, although the notorious peanut butter suit was not quite as represented during the PLRA debate, it was a federal civil rights lawsuit over a trivial dispute that had no business being in federal court.


In the NYS prison system, there are no internet connected computers in any facility (not even for staff), for this very reason. Each facility has its own complete law library, consisting of hard copies.

My guess is that the Mass authorities felt it cheaper to subscribe to an online service. This is probably true, especially if you can network dozens of facilities to the same service. As this episode illustrates, there is a cost in security when you go this route.

I run the inmate law library at a county jail. For the inmate computer, we do use a stand-alone unit with a pricey external hard drive from LexisNexis. We formerly used more costly CD-ROMs from West Law. The inmates attempt to subvert it, but to no avail. They tamper with the books of the law library to a degree far greater and more successfully (rip, tear, pocket).

FYI: At the county level, very, very few claim innocence; rather, they decry their arrest, sentencing, counsel, etc. as due cause for their release.

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