Inmate loses bid to participate in play-by-mail games

Tuesday, February 8, 2000

A Minnesota prisoner’s First Amendment rights were not violated when prison officials banned play-by-mail games, a federal appeals court has ruled.

Inmate Kuo Ping, a Federal Witness Security Program prisoner at Sandstone Federal Correctional Institution, contended that he had a free-expression right to receive play-by-mail games.

Play-by-mail games, such as Diplomacy, have been played since the 1960s and are now also available on the Internet. Some of the more popular games are DungeonWorld, Godfather, Legends, Duelmasters and Necromancer. Generally, players mail in orders to a moderator once a week and the moderator mails the results back to the players.

A federal district court rejected Ping’s claim, finding that prison officials had a legitimate reason to ban play-by-mail games: to protect the security of prisoners who are in the Federal Witness Security Program. The danger with the games, according to prison officials, is that inmates could send out messages in code that compromise prison security.

On appeal, the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed in Ping v. Raleigh, finding that the prison officials had a “legitimate, content-neutral reason for banning play-by-play games.”

The 8th Circuit cited the U.S. Supreme Court decision Turner v. Safley in determining whether the prison ban infringed on Ping’s constitutional rights. In Safley, the high court held that a prison regulation that affects prisoners’ First Amendment rights is constitutional as long as it is reasonably related to a legitimate penological interest. Prison officials often justify regulations that impact prisoners’ First Amendment rights by citing safety concerns.

The 8th Circuit cited safety concerns as its “legitimate penological interest,” writing: “We agree with the district court that the prison’s ban on play-by-mail games — which have the potential to allow inmates to communicate in code with outsiders — is reasonably related to legitimate penological interests, namely the security of WITSEC inmates’ locations and identities.”

Ping also claimed that his First Amendment rights were violated when prison officials prohibited him from sending a money order to buy a play-by-mail game rule book. The appeals court said that “the prison official who rejected it reasonably believed — based on what Ping told him — the rule book could be used to construct the banned games.”

Calls to the assistant U.S. attorney who handled the case for the prison officials were not returned. Ping, who represented himself before the appeals court, could not be reached for comment.