Reiser 4
August 23, 2010 5:32 PM   Subscribe

Are you allowed to use a computer in the US when you are in prison?

Hans Raiser, the creater of the ReiserFS filesystem was senteced to prison for murder 1, 2, 3.

As a long time ReiserFS user, who currently tries to fix one of my corrupted ext3 hard drives, I always was disappointed that Reiser 4 was never released in a production state.

While Hans Reiser deserves his time, is there no way he could keep working on Reiser4 in prison and actually DO something for society? Given all his weaknesses, he has already given a lot (ReiserFS). So is this unthinkable that he would be allowed to keep working on it?
posted by yoyo_nyc to Computers & Internet (18 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Unthinkable to whom? In the US, inmates tend to be given as little as corrections departments can get away with giving them. That means, in general, barely adequate food and shelter (and frequently inadequate medical care, protection from bodily harm, etc.). Prisons are said to be somewhat better than jails. For the record, I think the whole situation is shameful.

Imagine you're in charge of deciding whether or not Reiser gets a computer. What's the upside for you? I have a hard time picturing a prison superintendent, elected or appointed, choosing to say yes based on a desire to help the open source community.

That said, there are things a thinker can do that don't require computers. Plenty of mathematicians have done work on pencil and paper, or in their heads, while confined: two examples that come to mind are Jean Leray, who developed the notoriously abstruse tool of spectral sequences while interned in a POW camp during WWII, and Valery Fabrikant, who has continued to publish while serving a sentence for multiple homicide.

(Sorry for mentioning those two in the same sentence; the circumstances are obviously very different. Also, note that Fabrikant has had access to the Internet--but he's in Canada, not the US.)
posted by AkzidenzGrotesk at 5:49 PM on August 23, 2010 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Well, would take a second to find somebody whos willing to donate a computer to him.
posted by yoyo_nyc at 5:53 PM on August 23, 2010

It depends enormously on the prison, the prisoner, and the sentence. If he were in a pre-release program, then maybe. But he isn't, and he won't be for a long time, if ever.

Hand Reiser is at Mule Creek State Prison, which is currently housing more than twice as many inmates as it was designed for. Inmate programs do not seem to include any computer-related educational programs.

So, probably not, no.
posted by rtha at 5:53 PM on August 23, 2010

Here is a 2009 article published in Corrections Compendium about how and to what extent prisoners are allowed to use computers in both U.S. and Canadian jurisdictions.
posted by frobozz at 5:54 PM on August 23, 2010 [2 favorites]

On lack of preview: donate a computer to him? Prison doesn't work that way. They're lucky if they're allowed books and magazines, and the rules on what books/magazines you're allowed to send a prisoner are very strict.
posted by rtha at 5:55 PM on August 23, 2010

yoyo_nyc: "Well, would take a second to find somebody whos willing to donate a computer to him."

I'm sure you could easily find someone who would do it. The problem is that the prison probably wouldn't let him use it. If the only issue was having a computer (as opposed to having a prison issued one) then why wouldn't he ave brought his own to prison?
posted by theichibun at 5:58 PM on August 23, 2010

What he could do is write code on paper and send those documents off to other developers to implement and debug.

Captain Crunch (John Draper) used to do something similar. He wrote code on paper while serving time, although he had access to a computer while on work release during the day.
posted by Capa at 6:03 PM on August 23, 2010

I think it would boil down to the idea that computing is obviously something he liked to do. And purposely giving him the opportunity to do what he likes to do while in prison would be a non-starter on a jillion levels. There would be the political shitstorm the warden would have to weather. There would be the potential revenue that such a project would bring in -- would the prisoner be earning a fortune while in custody?!? etc etc. You're better off wondering if he'll learn to do macrame.
posted by BlahLaLa at 6:25 PM on August 23, 2010

It seems impossible for Reiser to usefully participate in the continued development of Reiser FS without a level of Internet access that's implausible, to say the least--it would be like allowing a prisoner to have an unmonitored, unrestricted phone line, which is an obvious security problem, at least. Prisoners with Internet access are generally provided very limited access--and they don't generally have email.

Then there's the fact that allowing Reiser to continue to develop his baby would seem to be contradictory to the intent of putting him in prison for murder, regardless of those outside of prison wanting his contributions.
posted by fatbird at 6:47 PM on August 23, 2010

Developing a filesystem is really not any sort of normal programming job. It requires access to vast corpora of test filesystems of various pathological conditions (i.e. huge amounts of data) and numerous machines to test in parallel. Namesys was not a single-man operation, they had a number of Russian employees. Moreover, getting anything into the kernel requires collaboration -- you can't just drop patch bombs onto LKML and expect it to get merged (and in fact this was a point of heavy contention between Reiser and the rest of the LKML community.)

This is not the kind of thing you can undertake on the dusty ancient Windows PC in the corner of the prison library, alone, by yourself, with no net connection.
posted by Rhomboid at 6:57 PM on August 23, 2010 [2 favorites]

Most prisons are pretty tough about inmate communications. Prisoners can often only receive visitors on an approved list, call approved telephone numbers, and sometimes even send mail to approved addresses. As I understand it, the rules vary a lot between prisons and states and depend on their security level. The point is to keep inmates from running criminal activities while in prison and for security: you don't want a prison gang in one facility contacting gang members in another facility and you don't want inmates to be able to harass their victims, victims' families, cops, lawyers, etc.. from inside of prison.

Internet access makes these kinds of restrictions nearly impossible to enforce, which is while you're not going to see it anytime soon in the vast majority of prisons. Certainly not in high and medium security. Prisons aren't going to offer programming they can't monitor and control, and open source software development isn't exactly something prison systems have expertise in handling.
posted by zachlipton at 7:09 PM on August 23, 2010

Actually DOING something for society is a privilege, don't you think? The sort of privilege you relinquish when you murder your wife?

Not that we get to choose, but I'd rather have Nina back than all the ReiserFS integer releases in the world.
posted by rdc at 8:07 PM on August 23, 2010 [7 favorites]

I have a friend who works with inmates on creative writing programs, and he told me this story. Some prisoner wrote something in one of his workshops that actually won a national contest with a cash prize associated with it. Well, the prize was confiscated by the prison, and then the creative writing program was dissolved, which included the removal of all the computers and other equipment that had been part of it. The way my friend put it, the guards and prison officials used to think the program was just a harmless and irrelevant activity. But once an inmate actually accomplished something with it, it was seen as counterproductive... as others have said above, prison isn't supposed to be pleasant.

On the other hand. Much of such stuff is totally at the discretion of the prison staff. If, for example, the warden (or, for that matter, a judge) gave a shit about ReiserFS, then no doubt a rationale could be constructed that Reiser owed it to society to spend his time working on the next version. Also, if millions of fans of ReiserFS signed a petition for his release, etc., then that sort of thing might be used by his lawyer to get him parole, or work release, or something.
posted by bingo at 8:52 PM on August 23, 2010

He'd have to be under supervision when he used it. Corrections people are loathe to give anything to anyone that can be used to fashion a weapon (apart from all the "regular" weapons you could make from the metal, wire, glass and plastic, you could probably even improvise a taser-like weapon out of the power supply if you knew what you were doing).

There also might be some concern that he could use the computer to maliciously create a virus or something similar, and your average prison staff person is not going to be able to review his work and make sure that isn't happening.

From the perspective of those in charge, the easiest and safest thing to do is just not let him use a computer.
posted by Menthol at 2:20 AM on August 24, 2010

Different prisons have different levels of security. Some of the "hard time" examples above are for the most serious offenders with the worst track records. Other prisons, for low risk prisoners may have more "freedom" within the bounds.

I think what is most likely unthinkable is continued DARPA sponsorship to a project run by a man in prison for a felony.
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 6:42 AM on August 24, 2010

AkzidenzGrotesk, you have a very long-winded way of saying, "I don't know."

frobozz's link says it all: The answer is "sometimes, in some prisons, depending on what the inmate is in for."
posted by coolguymichael at 12:33 PM on August 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

No, absolutely no access to computers for inmates at the CA state prison I volunteer at (San Quentin), and I'd be shocked if the situation were different at Mule Creek. We will pretty much be banned if we even accidentally go inside with a cell phone on us. Lots of contraband does get through; a prisoner was recently caught with an iphone and was supposedly harassing his victim. It's about controlling access to communication with the outside.

As an aside, I don't think prison workers across the board strive to make the atmosphere as unpleasant as possible for the inmates. Many of them I've spoken to seem very supportive of ways inmates can channel their energy in a positive way (education, sports, religion, etc.). To generalize, it's much easier to deal with a content population than an angry one.
posted by JenMarie at 12:48 PM on August 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

It's worth noting that brtfs is the designated successor to both ext4 and Reiser4. Theodore Tso, the ext4 maintainer, has already publicly pronounced this, specifically because brtfs incorporates most of the ideas that made ReiserFS and Reiser4 such large advances in filesystems. It's already been committed to the kernel.
posted by fatbird at 1:54 PM on August 24, 2010

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