Feds Ban MIM(Prisons) on CorrLinks, Disregard 1st Amendment
On 15 March 2018, MIM(Prisons) received dozens of emails from corrlinks.com, a website used by some U.$. prison systems to provide email access to prisoners. All were from the Federal Bureau of Prisons, and read in part:
"This message informs you that you have been blocked from communicating with the above-named federal prisoner because the Bureau has determined that such communication is detrimental to the security, good order, or discipline of the facility, or might facilitate criminal activity."
It has long been established that it is legal for staff to open and read mail sent into prisons, and to not allow such mail that might pose a threat to safety like communicating information on plans to hurt someone or commit a crime. Quite frequently, publications and even letters from MIM(Prisons) are censored by prison staff for being a threat to security. Legally, this must be based on the content of that mail or publication containing information that poses a direct threat. In practice it often is not, and sometimes we can fight those battles and win.
What the Federal Bureau of Prisons is trying to say here is that members of MIM(Prisons) are not allowed to communicate or associate with prisoners they hold captive, regardless of the content of those communications. This is of course a violation of U.$. law and founding principles. (for more background on related laws and court rulings see our censorship guide)
Such blanket bans have been attempted in the past. Sometimes openly like this one, or like the ban in California, which ended after an out-of-court settlement with Prison Legal News because, well, the CDCR knew what they were doing was illegal. MIM(Prisons) is submitting appeals to this and will update our readers. In the meantime our comrades in federal prisons should continue to contact us via postal mail and keep us updated on censorship on their end.
There have been some recent discussions around the use of electronic communications and devices within U.$. prisons and how comrades should approach them. While CorrLinks has been around for some time, more recently prisoners in many prisons can purchase tablet computers for persynal use. Just as we warn people in general about how they use these technologies, those warnings apply even more to prisoners. While the internet provides opportunities for anonymity and free flow of information, this is not really true for the services provided by the state to prisoners. So there is little benefit, and much risk in terms of surveillance and control over a persyn's communications from within prison when using these tools. Thanks to profiteering, we are not even aware of any email services for prisoners that don't charge ridiculous rates.
In general, technology does offer solutions, that are at times better than what we can achieve in real life interactions in terms of both security and thinking more scientifically. To look at some principles of communication that we can apply both online and off, we will look at Briar (briarproject.org). Briar is still in Alpha, and only currently available for Android OS, but has received promising security reviews so far. Briar is an interesting example, because it addresses decentralization, cryptography and anonymity.
One of the biggest problems with the internet today is the centralization that a handful of multinational corporations have made of the traffic on the internet by locking people into certain services. When it comes to email, prisoners have little choice but to use the CorrLinks, centralized service, and face potential bans like this one. On the internet, centralization of activity on certain platforms allows the corporations on those platforms to decide what a majority of the population is seeing, who they are communicating with and when they are no longer allowed to communicate. With Briar, in contrast, one does not even need an internet connection to set up a network of communication with your associates. And even with the internet, each client serves as a node on a decentralized network, so that there is no one powerful persyn who can decide to shut it down. This same principle is applied in real world organizing, where an organization is decentralized to avoid being paralyzed if an individual is removed or repressed.
On the internet, we also have a problem of information being available everywhere to almost anyone. It is only recently, with many hacks and data breeches, that people are beginning to realize that encryption is necessary to protect even peoples' basic information. Such information has been used to falsely imprison people, to steal identities, and to just target and harass people. In the real world, people know to talk quietly about certain things, or talk about plans for building peace when that C.O. who is always instigating fights isn't around, etc. On the internet there is the potential for all information to be available for an indefinite period of time, to potentially anyone. So suddenly everything needs to be said in a whisper, or in encrypted form as Briar and other software does.
Related to encryption is anonymity. Whenever one goes online, one must have an IP Address that tells the other machines on the network where you are so they can send you responses. This IP address (typically) is linked to a real world location and often to a specific machine. Previously we have talked about The Onion Router(Tor), which works to hide your IP Address. When on the internet, Briar operates through Tor, when connecting to others on the network. This provides for anonymity. Anonymity does not have as strong parallels in the real world, but might be like putting up fliers in the middle of the night or marching in a protest with a mask on. This is an advantage of the internet. If done properly, we can spread information anonymously, and without fear of reprisal. In addition, anonymity on the internet allows us to share information without the biases that we come across in real world interactions. The internet can be a tool for people to think more scientifically and judge ideas for their merit and not for who is saying them.
As the above example shows, we cannot trust the U.$. government to just obey its own laws and not repress people for their political beliefs. We must continue to stand up to such political repression, while building independent institutions of the oppressed that allow us to continue to organize for a better tomorrow.