THERE will always be arguments over the extent to which prisoners, having committed a crime which landed them in the slammer, forfeit the rights enjoyed by other citizens. In less socially responsible regimes, such arguments might revolve around whether an inmate can refuse to have the stuffing beaten out of him. In more democratic countries, debates usually rage over whether jailbirds should have access to the same kind of comforts enjoyed by those on the outside. While few would accuse US prisons of being run like holiday camps, it has to be said that the Constitution - which can always be relied upon to provide legal justification for some of the nation's sillier excesses - has been something of a friend to the felon. The debate about the civil rights of prisoners has recently found its most interesting expression in the question of whether they have the right to read pornographic literature in the comfort of their cells. Many Americans would probably be outraged to learn that prisoners and girlie magazine publishers - and indeed quite a few judges - believe it is perfectly appropriate for an inmate to take out a subscription to, say Penthouse, and to have it delivered to his cell. Indeed, the fight over whether to allow centrefolds behind bars has been raging for a couple of years at both federal and state level - and is almost certain to go all the way to the Supreme Court. Last week, a federal appeals court overturned an earlier ruling striking down a 1996 congressional law which banned sexually-themed literature from prisons. Proponents of the law said pornography was apt to make prisoners aggressive, get in the way of their rehabilitation, and provoke fights between inmates. When some prisoners challenged the law, they had their day in court when a federal judge agreed the ban violated their First Amendment rights to read the same smut as everyone else. Last week's ruling, however, came down on the side of Congress' law, agreeing that, on balance, prison porno was too harmful for constitutional arguments to allow it through. One judge on the appeals panel dissented, espousing the argument that is at the centre of every such debate: 'It appears,' she wrote, 'to need restating once again that prisoners do not lose all their constitutional rights when the prison door clangs behind them.' In a separate case in Arizona, the country's most famous hang-em-and-flog-em sheriff, Joe Arpaio, has been thwarted by the courts in his efforts to ban a prisoner in one of his famously spartan jails from subscribing to Playboy. Sheriff Arpaio, who has managed to get away with sticking prisoners in pink jumpsuits, making them live in tents in the middle of the desert, and even reinstating the tradition of chain gangs, has so far been unable to defeat the First Amendment's catch-all omnipotence. Eventually, though, the lack of clear guidelines over what is erotic or inappropriate is likely to stymie authorities' efforts to clamp down on the prison perverts. While girlie magazines are banned, for example, prisoners have been snapping up copies of Victoria's Secret catalogues with no problem. So far, the sight of Tyra Banks in satin undies has not been blamed for any inmate uprisings - er, make that riots. The Y2K millennium bug problem might be the biggest furrow on the brow of computer programmers, but another acronym is causing problems even as we speak. HFG is not a virus or a software defect, but the computer world's version of a terrorist group which has attacked some of America's high-profile systems in recent months. The group of hackers - their full name is Hacking For Girlies - has been on the warpath over the impending trial of the King of Hackers, Kevin Mitnick, who is finally getting his day in court in January after languishing in jail for three years on hacking crimes. A virtual pro-Mitnick underground sub-culture has sprung up since his arrest by the FBI, with scores of Web sites imparting conspiracy theories about how Mitnick has been made a martyr by a paranoid police state. His supporters have even protested outside the offices of Miramax films, which is producing a movie based on his rise and fall. But by far their most damaging work has been directed against vulnerable Web sites. The latest to fall victim to an HFG attack was The New York Times, which had to close its Web site for eight hours last week - in the midst of high traffic from people trying to find the Starr report - after the group replaced its page with one of its own, which was strewn with obscenities and attacks on writers who have written about Mitnick. It took Times programmers a long time to repair the security 'firewall' which the hackers had managed to penetrate, and the paper referred the case to the FBI. The huge search engine site Yahoo was also disrupted earlier this year by hackers claiming to support Mitnick, and an author, Carolyn Meinel, who wrote a book criticising the hacker community has, inevitably, found her own Web site under steady attack. 'These people are desperate for fame,' she told the Times last week. 'These are the kids who used to make stink bombs. Now they have the Internet.' Experts predict more cyber-stink bombs will be unleashed all over the Net as the Mitnick trial approaches.