Report on prisoners using Facebook prompts lawmaker to act
State prisoners would face criminal penalties for using Facebook behind bars under a proposed bill that also would target accomplices who aid them in illicit online activity.
State Rep. Wendell Gilliard, D-Charleston, is the primary sponsor of legislation that would make it illegal for inmates to belong to social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace. Those who violate the law or help an inmate secure an account on one of these sites would face 30 days in jail and/or a $500 fine, under the proposal.
Gilliard said he was moved to act after reading recent Post and Courier Watchdog accounts of at least a half-dozen state inmates using social media sites to get around prison rules and communicate with folks on the outside. Officials worry prisoners will use this technology to taunt victims and carry on criminal activities from behind prison walls.
"This is an embarrassment to South Carolina that no lawmaker should tolerate," said Gilliard, whose bill has a dozen co-sponsors. "These inmates can use this to put people's lives in danger. We need to put a stop to this immediately."
Some inmates use people on the outside to help them set up online accounts and post messages. Others use cell phones and smart phones that are smuggled into state prisons. Some 2,000 phones were seized in South Carolina prisons alone last year.
Facebook pulled down five inmate profiles in response to previous Watchdog inquiries. On Monday, three more prisoner profiles were yanked from the website after readers alerted Watchdog to their presence.
Robert Warren, 31, is serving a 30-year sentence at Lieber Correctional Institution for his role in a 1998 murder in Berkeley County. Warren was one of four men who unleashed a barrage of gunfire at a Sangaree apartment complex, killing a 23-year-old bystander.
Warren looks grim in his official inmate photo, but he was all smiles on his Facebook page. He posed with his wife, displayed his latest drawings and offered comments such as: "Steelers to the superbowl. Hell yeah!" So the loss of his Facebook page likely was his second disappointment this week.
Courtney Woode also displayed his Steelers pride with a Facebook photo showing off a tattoo of the team's logo on his arm. Woode, however, wasn't supposed to be posting anything from his cell at Lee Correctional Institution. He is serving a 40-year sentence for a kidnapping incident in which he held his ex-girlfriend and another woman hostage at a Richland County McDonald's in 2008.
An acquaintance of the 29-year-old prisoner from Sumter contacted Watchdog after Woode's face unexpectedly popped up on Facebook one day. "I couldn't believe it," she said. "It was infuriating to me."
Kwame Chad Alston, a 27-year-old convicted murderer from Beaufort, also was undone by a reader who recognized him online. Alston, serving a 30-year term at Lieber, later tried to cover his tracks by changing his profile picture to a close-up shot of his chest. It didn't work. He was offline by mid-day Monday.
Corrections Department spokesman John Barkley told Watchdog that prison investigators planned to look into the three men's Web presence. Any inmate caught with contraband like a cell phone faces time in "lockup," which means he can plan on spending 23 hours a day in a cell. They also can face the loss of visitation and canteen privileges, among other things, he said.