By Cathy Bussewitz
Carson City, Nev. — A plan debated Tuesday by Nevada lawmakers would allow some state prison inmates – who lost the use of personal typewriters starting in 2007 – limited access to the Internet.
Currently, inmates can’t use the Internet, but have access to electronic library materials on CD-ROMs. Under AB34, they could get e-mail from approved senders, take online classes, and access an electronic law library. All the e-mail traffic could be monitored by prison staffers.
“We have a real limitation on those inmates that are working in the community,” state Corrections Director Howard Skolnik told the Assembly Corrections, Parole and Probation Committee.
“There are inmates coming out of our restitution center and transitional housing, who cannot use a telephone. They cannot sit at a computer that’s attached to the Internet,” he added. “And those are the kind of jobs that really have a future for our folks, instead of going to car washes all the time.”
The plan is to set up kiosks where inmates would access incoming e-mails from approved senders, and download MP3 digital files for a price. Skolnik said that secure types of kiosks are available on the market, and used in prisons in other states.
Allowing the technology could create a potential source of revenue for prisons, since they could sell MP3 players and digital music files. Skolnik said that because of the current restrictions, the prison system is losing out on that potential revenue stream.
The committee chairman, Assemblyman William Horne, D-Las Vegas, asked whether inmates would be able to apply for jobs online. He said more and more employers request such applications.
“We do not currently have the ability to control that,” Skolnik said. “Once the technology is there to assure us that the access could be controlled, at that point we might consider it, and we’d probably implement it through one of our transitional housing facilities.”
In arguing for tight controls, Skolnik said that in the early days of the Internet, at a county jail in Pennsylvania, an inmate hacked into a computer, transferred $40,000 into his personal bank account, posted bail and disappeared.
“Our fear is that if inmates had uncontrolled access to the Internet, they would be creating new victims, they would be harassing old victims and they would be doing a lot of things that frankly we just don’t want them to do,” Skolnik said.
The Internet plan follows a decision that has led to confiscation of hundreds of portable typewriters from inmates over the past two years. Prison officials cited security concerns because metal pieces from typewriters could be sharpened into dangerous weapons.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada fought the typewriter confiscation, saying that they were vital to inmates who represented themselves in legal proceedings. The ACLU favors the new bill, but proposed an amendment to ensure that the electronic access doesn’t take the place of inmates’ visitation rights or the chance to see a doctor.
Also at the hearing, Skolnik said that his department proposed to close the Nevada State Prison in Carson City because it was “the only thing that was the right size and dollar amount” that could be cut to meet budget demands.
“We would have absolutely nothing better to happen for our department than for you all to find the money to keep that open and to keep those beds open,” Skolnik told the committee.
Currently, the number of inmates in the prison is lower than what was projected, but Skolnik cautioned that economic downturns often coincide with increases in crime.
“I think we would be able to struggle through the next couple of years, if the population stayed the way it is,” Skolnik said after the meeting. “If the population grows, we’re going to be in trouble.”
Skolnik also told the committee he was not sure whether the state really needed “Prison 8,” the $200 million-plus prison expansion in southern Nevada.
The committee also was told the Nevada Parole and Probation Division has 102 unfilled positions throughout the state. In Las Vegas, there are four officers watching 2,100 of the lowest-level offenders. The recommended level is 100 cases per probation officer, but in Nevada each officer has over 500 cases.
“In Las Vegas, the staff is overworked,” said Bernie Curtis, state parole-probation chief. “There really is no supervision at all.”