Facebook risky for inmates

The S.C. Department of Corrections is throwing inmates in solitary confinement for posting to Facebook under a policy that views social media use as harshly as killing, raping or rioting in state prisons, according to an article by the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

The foundation, a California-based nonprofit defending civil liberties in the digital world, found 16 inmates caught using social media were sentenced to more than a decade in solitary confinement. The article, published Thursday, cited one convicted burglar who was handed 37 years in solitary lockup and lost 74 years worth of telephone and visitation privileges for making 38 posts to Facebook.

The article, written by investigative researcher Dave Maass, details how the Corrections Department in 2012 increased the penalty for inmates caught using social media or contraband cellphones, making those violations Level 1 offenses and placing them on par with serious acts of violence. Prison officials also counted each day that an inmate accessed sites such as Facebook as a separate violation, stacking on potential penalties, Maass wrote.

“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,” the article stated.

Space limitations in segregation units have regularly led to long solitary sentences being suspended, the article noted, with 512 days the average stay in disciplinary detention. Since 2012, prison officials have lodged 432 disciplinary violations against 397 inmates in connection with the policy, with more than 40 inmates receiving more than two years in solitary confinement, according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation piece.

Corrections officials made no apologies for their policies Thursday, saying South Carolina is no different than any other state in cracking down on this behavior.

Inmates are strictly banned from using cellphones and social media in the state’s prisons due to security concerns, but contraband phones make their way into these facilities all the time.

The Post and Courier in 2011 documented the cases of more than a dozen inmates who used Facebook and MySpace to get around prison rules and communicate with people on the outside. The following year, Corrections Department officials confiscated 3,036 contraband cellphones from prisons statewide, agency records show. Still, the problem persists.

Some of the communications have been relatively benign, with inmates using phones and Facebook to keep up with family and friends. Other prisoners, however, have used these outlets to coordinate the smuggling of contraband, harass victims or worse. Last year, one inmate received an additional 20 years behind bars for using a cellphone to order a hit in 2010 on Capt. Robert Johnson, a correctional officer at Lee prison in Bishopville.

“We have to look no further than our own S.C. corrections officer, Captain Johnson, who was shot six times in his home due to an attempted contract killing via a contraband cellphone,” Corrections Director Bryan Stirling said. “We take the use of contraband cellphones and social media by inmates very seriously, and the punishments for using them are severe. We are no different from any other corrections department across the country dealing with this issue.”

The Electronic Frontier Foundation based its article on documents obtained through the state Freedom of Information Act. Maass said he became interested in the subject after reading an online petition posted by convicted killer Frenchis Abraham aimed at blocking state efforts to criminalize Facebook activity by prisoners.

Maass told The Post and Courier that he understands there is a legitimate need for officials to crack down on illicit activities by inmates, but he is concerned about such a blanket policy that punishes all forms on online speech and levies harsh penalties for nonviolent offenses.

Maass said he does not have data to show how South Carolina stacks up against other states in this area.

The article also raised questions about the process and criteria used by Facebook to suspend prisoner profiles when requests come in from the Corrections Department. Documents obtained from the state indicated Facebook has processed 512 “deactivation requests” from state correctional officers since 2012, the article said. No one could provide numbers on how many accounts were deactivated, and Facebook has insisted it only enforces its terms of service, not prison rules.

“Accessing Facebook from prison does not violate our terms, but allowing another person to access your account on your behalf does,” Facebook spokesman Matt Steinfeld told the newspaper. “We will restrict access to accounts when we believe they have been compromised for any reason, including in the case of people who are incarcerated and don’t have Internet access.”