A federal appeals court on Thursday rejected a complaint from pen-pal services that challenged a Florida policy banning inmates from advertising themselves on the online sites.
The operators of WriteAPrisoner.com and two other services claimed the policy violated the free speech rights of the state's inmates. But the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sided with state officials who argued the Match.com-style listings could lead to security problems.
It's the latest decision in an ongoing legal feud between the online pen-pal sites and corrections officials who have adopted similar policies in several other states. The federal appeals court in Chicago in July upheld a similar restriction adopted by the Indiana Department of Correction.
Florida officials prohibited the online ads in 2004 after receiving complaints about pen pal scams. The rule allowed inmates to correspond with pen pals but banned them from placing ads on sites to find new pals. Inmates who ignore the rule could have privileges such as visitation or phone calls revoked.
WriteAPrisoner and two letter services, Freedom Through Christ Prison Ministry and Prison Pen Pals, argue that the sites play a valuable role in helping inmates. They say many people who use the sites are from religious groups, and that they help inmates rehabilitate by providing them more contact with the outside world.
But prison officials countered that the sites could lead to more money and contraband entering the facilities. The department would have to assign more staffers and to comb through mail to root out any signs of fraudulent schemes or illegal material, state officials said in court records.
In an 18-page ruling, Circuit Judge Charles R. Wilson concluded that allowing inmates to post ads on the sites would place an extra burden on already-strained prison staffs. He said the rules don't violate the inmates' rights, and noted they still allow them to "glean the positive influence" from pen pals using sites that don't require ads.
Florida corrections spokeswoman Ann Howard said the state is pleased with the ruling. WriteAPrisoner.com owner Adam Lovell said the decision blocks his site from offering rehabilitative services to Florida inmates that could have helped reduce recidivism. He is considering whether to appeal.
"The department's rule and today's decision solved a non-existent problem," he said. "It is a sad day for us, but we proudly move on with the support of a very strong base committed to prison reform."
Lovell said the policy has prevented any inmates in Florida state prisons from posting ads, but his site features more than 170 listings from Florida members in federal prison.
They range from a 34-year-old man seeking a pen-pal to ease his "loneliness and despair" to a 32-year-old female who jokes of living in a "wonderful gated community equipped with 24 hour armed security and surveillance."