Quincy Howard is ensconced behind the razor-wired walls of a state prison for killing a man in Marion County three years ago, but that hasn't stopped him from keeping up with his "friends" on Facebook.
In fact, the 22-year-old convict added more than 100 new friends in the past week while serving a 30-year sentence for manslaughter at the maximum-security Lee Correctional Institute in Bishopville.
He stares out from his Facebook page in a prison jumpsuit, accrues points in the Mafia Wars game and grouses about being "RAILROADED BY THIS CROOKED A JUDICIAL SYSTEM IN SOUTH CAROLINA."
State prison officials say they shut down Howard's means of illicit communication when they seized a contraband cell phone from his quarters this month. He is now in disciplinary detention and stripped of his telephone and visitation privileges. But his page still shows signs of activity.
A Marion County reader alerted The Post and Courier Watchdog to Howard's page. The newspaper found at least two convicted murderers from Charleston with profiles on Facebook as well. As with Howard, it can be difficult to tell if they are posting information themselves or funneling it to a proxy on the outside.
Either way, authorities have become increasingly concerned about the potential for inmates to use social media and modern technology to taunt victims and carry on criminal activities from behind prison walls.
Cell phones and smartphones are banned in prisons across the nation, but they are routinely smuggled in, giving inmates ready access to the outside world.
"It renders the prison fence sort of useless in some cases," Corrections Department spokesman Josh Gelinas said.
The power of this technology behind bars was demonstrated last month when Georgia inmates used smartphones to organize a prison strike at four facilities, prompting lock downs, authorities said.
Closer to home, a veteran captain at Lee Correctional Institute was shot six times last year after an inmate used a smuggled cell phone to order a "hit" on the officer at his home. Officials worry that access to social media sites such as Facebook will expand the reach of inmates bent on wrongdoing.
"For inmates to have that kind of unfettered access to the outside is an affront to the justice system and a slap in the face of victims, not to mention a tremendous safety threat," 9th Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson said.
A line to the outside
South Carolina inmates aren't allowed Internet access, and prison officials investigate whenever they learn of a prisoner on Facebook, Gelinas said. Any cell phones found are immediately confiscated.
But phones keep finding their way inside, often by way of accomplices tossing them over the prison fence. And authorities have no way of knowing just how many inmates may be making use of social media sites, Gelinas said.
For two years, South Carolina has been seeking federal permission to jam cell phone signals at state prisons, but the request has stalled before the Federal Communications Commission, despite support from 30 other states.
Regulators cite a federal law blocking states from jamming public airwaves.
So the state is exploring alternate technology that would allow authorities to intercept and block unapproved wireless calls emanating from prisons, an approach that has proved successful in Mississippi, Gelinas said.
Last year alone, South Carolina corrections officers seized about 2,000 cell phones from the state's prisons. By comparison, nearly five times as many phones were confiscated from California prisons. Even notorious mass murderer Charles Manson had one under his mattress.
Manson hasn't posted a profile on Facebook, but other killers and crooks have. One Oklahoma inmate, imprisoned for killing a sheriff, recently caused a stir by posting photos of himself smoking marijuana, holding a bottle of booze and flashing knives inside a prison.
Another police killer, on death row in Tennessee, racked up nearly 300 friends before Facebook disabled his account as a result of a query from ABC News. And in England, The Guardian newspaper reported that 30 Facebook pages were removed after British prisoners used them to taunt their victims.
Skirting the rules
Facebook doesn't ban prison inmates from signing up and has no idea how many convicts are registered with the site, according to Andrew Noyes, Facebook's public policy communications manager.
Facebook, however, will disable inmate accounts if it learns that someone on the outside is updating a prisoner's profile, which violates the site's rules, he said.
That appears to be the case with some inmate profiles, including that of Marion County's Howard, who had 450 Facebook friends by week's end, including a pastor.
Howard seemed to spend the majority of last year playing the strategy games Mafia Wars and Cafe World, while offering various misspelled updates assuring friends that he was "guud" and "maintainn." His last post was Jan. 16.
A message sent to his page by The Post and Courier generated a response by someone who described himself as Howard's "representer." He or she claimed ownership of the page and suggested the newspaper pursue other, more important topics.
"I STARTED THIS PAGE SO I COULD LET HIM KNOW ABOUT FRIENDS AND FAMILY THAT HE CAN NOT CONNECT WITH, I DELIVER MESSAGES TO HIM FROM MOST PEOPLE ON THIS PAGE," the "representer" wrote in an e-mail to The Post and Courier.
A similar explanation was given in response to an e-mail sent to the profile page of Jabez Batiste, a 24-year-old Charleston man serving a 40-year prison term for his role in the fatal shooting of two men outside a West Ashley McDonald's in 2007.
He had 88 Facebook friends as of Friday. His page also offered prison photos and messages to supporters, such as a November post that read: "I WANNA WISH ALL MY FAMILY AND PEEPS A BLESSED HOLIDAY SEASON...C YA SOON...1 LUV!!!
An e-mail sent to The Post and Courier by the keepers of his page stated that it is run by family members and limited to people who play a positive role in Batiste's life.
"Jabez friends get the opportunity to send encouragement and support through the page which is relayed to him, this in turns keeps him focused to the positives in his life ," the message read.
The newspaper also attempted to contact convicted murderer Jarod Tapp through his Facebook page, which appears recent and had just one friend listed, his sister.
Tapp, serving a life sentence for the 2003 rape and murder of College of Charleston graduate Julie Jett, did not respond to the newspaper. But his name and photo quickly disappeared from the page, replaced with a more generic moniker and a photo of a car. Back under the radar again.
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