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Indiana's Inmate Pen-Pal Ad Ban Stands

By Robyn Hagan Cain on July 22, 2011 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals upheld an Indiana Department of Corrections (IDOC) policy this week that prohibits inmates from advertising for pen-pals, finding that the restriction on inmate pen-pals does not violate inmates’ First Amendment rights.

The policy grew out of a 2005 investigation that IDOC launched in response to complaints from family members of an elderly man who had allegedly been defrauded by prisoners. The investigation revealed that a majority of the 350 inmates advertising online for pen-pals had misrepresented themselves to the public on the websites.

Following the investigation, IDOC attempted to curb inmate fraud by limiting the source of inmates' trust account funds to inmates' family members and visitors list, and prohibiting inmates from soliciting or commercially advertising for money, goods, or services, including pen-pals. The inmates challenged the latter, arguing that the prohibition against advertising for pen-pals and receiving materials from the pen-pal sites violates the First Amendment.

The Second Circuit found that the IDOC inmate pen-pal restrictions reasonably related to legitimate penological interests; a prohibition on advertising for pen-pals cuts off the inmates' access to potential fraud victims. The court noted that prisoners could find pen-pals through alternative sources, including other inmates and their attorneys, and by their own initiative. The advertising prohibition did not serve to cut the inmates off from the world.

Strangers' donations to inmates' trust accounts recently grabbed headlines when reports emerged that admirers were sending checks to Casey Anthony's Orange County inmate account. Unlike the Indiana Department of Corrections, Florida jails do not impose limitations on who may contribute to an inmate's account.

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