Hundreds of Inmates Are in Solitary for Using Facebook

Earlier this week, the Electronic Frontier Foundation released the results of a study that found that, “in the South Carolina prison system, accessing Facebook is an offense on par with murder, rape, rioting, escape and hostage-taking.”

They’re not exaggerating. The EFF study found that, over the last three years, South Carolina prison officials have bought disciplinary cases against over 400 inmates for “social networking,” which in most cases meant using Facebook. Regardless of the content of the posts, the penalties for these offenses are extreme, ranging from solitary confinement to deprivation of visitation access. In 16 cases, the EFF found that inmates were sentenced to 10 years or more in solitary for using Facebook. From the report:

The sentences are so long because SCDC issues a separate Level 1 violation for each day that an inmate accesses a social network. An inmate who posts five status updates over five days, would receive five separate Level 1 violations, while an inmate who posted 100 updates in one day would receive only one.

In other words, if a South Carolina inmate caused a riot, took three hostages, murdered them, stole their clothes, and then escaped, he could still wind up with fewer Level 1 offenses than an inmate who updated Facebook every day for two weeks.

Even advocates of radical prison reform recognize that there are legitimate concerns regarding communication devices and inmates, but South Carolina’s practices are so overboard that they’d be laughable if it wasn’t so tragic.

If you’re wondering why a prison system would work so hard to inflict such serious punishments for such minor infractions, see if you can find a clue in this paragraph (it should be easy because the emphasis here is ours):

The policy is also incredibly broad; it can be applied to any reason an inmate may [use social media], such as having a family member manage their online financial affairs, working with activists to organize an online legal defense campaign, sending letters to online news sites, or just staying in touch with family and friends to create the type of community support crucial to reintegrating into society.

One part of the story that isn’t getting much attention is the behavior of Facebook itself – and it’s pretty shady behavior indeed.

See, when the EFF asked Facebook about all this, Facebook repeatedly claimed that it does not enforce prison policies. According to Facebook, all they’re doing is upholding their Terms of Service: when a corrections officer contacts Facebook about an inmate page, they claim, Facebook staff may suspend the account, but only if the inmate violated the site’s Terms of Service.

Here’s the thing: that’s a stone cold lie. The EFF discovered that Facebook actually has a special “Inmate Account Takedown Request” form:

Facebook has made it all too easy for prisons to report inmates for having profiles: the site has a form titled “Inmate Account Takedown Request.” A corrections officer only needs to enter a few pieces of information about the inmate—the inmate’s name, profile link, and the crime for which they’re being imprisoned, but not the purported violation of Facebook’s Terms of Service—to get the inmate’s profile taken down.

It gets more flagrant: the EFF uncovered email correspondence that proved that Facebook willingly accommodated a correction officer’s request to take an inmate’s page down, despite Facebook acknowledging in the email itself that the takedown had nothing to do with a terms of service violation, but rather a violation of “inmate regulations:”

Last time we checked, Facebook isn’t a branch of the South Carolina prison system. There is absolutely no reason that they should be assisting officials with this (arguably unconstitutional) program, especially in light of how overly harsh South Carolina’s approach is.

The EFF finishes their write-up with a list of demands. The first is a challenge to South Carolinians (of which we have two on the O98 staff, so we’re especially invested in this fight): “Demand an immediate review of how this policy is applied.” We may take that a few steps further, but it’s definitely a great place to start. The EFF also has a list of recommendations for Facebook:

  • Stop censoring inmates without first evaluating whether a serious ToS violation has occurred (such as harassing a victim or engaging in a criminal enterprise).
  • Eliminate the inmate takedown feature, or, at the very least, ensure that a public record (such as a receipt email) is generated every time a prison official files a takedown request and every time Facebook complies.
  • Revise its transparency report to include detailed numbers of takedown requests Facebook has received, what agency sent each request, and how Facebook responded.
  • Hold law enforcement agencies, such as prisons, accountable for abusing Facebook’s ToS.

Sounds great to us.

To read the full report from the EFF, click here. To get involved in advocating for inmate rights, check out this extensive list of local and national groups to find one that best suits you.

Written by Caitlyn McClure

Caitlyn is a rabble-rouser and writer based in Olympia, WA. She is a copywriter and logistics specialist for Tiny Pixel Collective, a web shop providing activists and artists with the tools they need to tell stories that inspire change.