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Computers Ok In Class, But Not Allowed In Cells

Sun., April 21, 1996

For the next few years at least, most Washington state inmates can forget about having computers in their cells.

Computers - almost mandatory in the American workplace - are seen as a security risk by most state prison officials.

Washington, like several other states, has experimented with letting prisoners buy computers. But in the past four years, officials here as in other states have adopted tougher, no-frills inmate property policies.

Inmates argue that the state already permits most prisoners to own electric typewriters.

“Several people who got out of here ended up doing computer jobs because they had a computer in prison,” said Paul Wright, a convicted murderer in the Monroe Reformatory.

One of them, Ed Mead, left Monroe and now works as computer system manager for Seattle’s Public Defender program.

Both Wright and Mead got their computers in the late 1980s, when the state initiated a test program that was used by 24 prisoners at Monroe.

In 1989, the state halted the program, claiming some inmates were concealing escape plans on floppy disks.

In 1992, after prison-rights advocates mounted a campaign, the state changed its mind again. In another trial program, it decided to let 24 Monroe inmates buy computers.

The state requires that the machines have no modems and no game software. Prisoners also can’t have floppy disks in their cells. Violating that rule would mean loss of the computer.

Inside his single-bed, 9-by-6 cell at Monroe, Wright uses his computer and printer to write articles for Prison Legal News, a publication published in Florida every other month.

He also writes letters and prepares legal documents related to his sentence, which runs another six years.

He dismisses state officials’ claims that previous computer users in prisons were hiding information.

“Computers are just tools for information. Nothing is more threatening to prison officials than prisoners who are able to communicate,” he said.

Prison officials will review the Monroe program in the next few months. It’s highly doubtful it will be expanded, said Rolphs.

“People locked in prisons are there because they made some wrong decisions,” he said.

“But they’re not stupid, either. They’ve been known to do some pretty unusual things.”

, DataTimes MEMO: See related story under the headline: Computers offer inmates an escape from boredom

See related story under the headline: Computers offer inmates an escape from boredom

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