Communication Rights

Pattern number within this pattern set: 
William McIver
University at Albany
Joy A. James
Williams College

Recent legislation and regulations restrict prisoners’ rights to communicate, as articulated by the U.S. Constitution, U.S. legal code, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political rights. This expansion of police powers has diminished the space for political rights and created new challenges for human rights advocates.


This pattern can be employed in the cyber community of human rights and prisoners


Cees J. Hamelink, Professor of International Communication at the University of Amsterdam, writes that human rights provide a "universally available set of standards for the dignity and integrity of all human beings"(1994). These standards offer a common framework—much like software standards—in which human rights, including the right to communicate, can be established, protected, and enforced. Communication as a human right—distinct from freedom of expression—has been developing in international policy and legal contexts for the last 150 years and is the right most applicable to universal access. Communication in this context is defined as a democratic and balanced dialogue between two or more parties.

Following September 11, 2001, there has been erosion of civil liberties and human rights for detainees and prisoners in the United States. These include rights articulated in the U.S. constitution and Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (UN 1993). Main stream media and the public officials who serve as its commentators have not provided an effective space for a proper discussion of these issues. This pattern attempts to address the means by which information technologies can be used to expand the public space where critical attention can be brought to human and civil rights violations against detainees and prisoners.

Historically, U.S. citizens and residents arraigned or sentenced for criminal convictions, as well as illegal immigrants confined in Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) detention centers, have been routinely deprived of certain civil rights and human rights, as defined under U.S. law and international treaties to which the United States is a signatory (Amnesty International 1999; Burton-Rose et al. 1998; James 1996). Key among the rights that have been rescinded are provisions meant to protect an individual’s basic needs, such as the right to communicate. Prisoners in the United States, for example, have no uniform guarantees to the right to communicate with family, peers, political, social and legal groups, and the media. Communication rights in the context of incarceration are critical because they are both the sole means for society to receive and impart information regarding the well-being of prisoners and detainees and for informing the public about the conditions of an often forgotten sector of state and society—the American penal system.

Advocates and activists for prisoners’ rights have made efforts to use information technology to inform others, but they have not been prepared, in various ways, to fully utilize their technological resources and human rights frameworks to educate the public and respond to these recent rapid, sweeping changes in U.S. law.

The discussion of this pattern will focus on how information technologies can be used to improve the public’s awareness of prisoners’ and detainees’ access to communication and responses to the curtailment of civil liberties.


The solution entails synthesizing a communications network using existing Internet technologies to enable advocates/activists to respond to violations of detainee and prisoner rights. Social relationships to be considered within this network are the following:

Prisoners <–> advocates/activists;
advocates/activists <—> media;
advocates/activists <—> government.

A three part solution requires that we:
1. link prisoners’ rights Web sites;
2. provide prisoners’ rights advocates/activists with Internet-based communication technologies so that it is not necessary for them to go off-line to communicate with government officials or media outlets;
3. link advocates/activists to government Web sites that publish current legislation concerning expanding police powers within incarceration sites.

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