Kathey Brennan was surprised when she received an e-mail recently from a federal inmate who wanted to become her online pen pal. She was downright shocked when she learned that the man was serving time for holding a teenage girl as a sex slave in Florida.
The Berkeley County woman called the Willamsburg Federal Correctional Institution in Salters to find out how inmate Eriverto "Fat Boy" Cotto -- a total stranger -- got hold of her e-mail address.
"The guy at the prison told me, 'He must have found you through Facebook,' " Brennan said. "He told me 'You have to be careful with what you put on your Facebook page.' "
She quickly checked Facebook and there was Cotto, smiling in prison grays in front of a mural of a sunset. The only interest he lists is "women."
"I got so upset," she said. "This is just too scary."
Brennan, whose husband is an area law enforcement officer, contacted Post and Courier Watchdog, which has outed about a dozen state prison inmates with illicit Facebook pages.
Brennan did some digging of her own and found more than 30 inmates who maintain Facebook pages while incarcerated at federal prisons in South Carolina, for everything from drug-running to weapons offenses.
Inmates across the country have found ways to access social networking sites, such as Facebook, with the aid of smuggled smart phones and proxies on the outside. Officials worry that prisoners will use this technology to taunt victims and carry on criminal activities from behind prison walls.
Many of the inmates Brennan found on Facebook spend their time expounding on their rehabilitation, encouraging people to write to them and espousing various causes, including their own.
One man groused about the "lying" lawyer who got him wrongfully convicted. Another lamented the GOP gains in Congress. Others cast a wide net for love.
"I'm Single N Looking!" announced convicted drug trafficker Marcus Ingram, serving a 15-year sentence at Williamsburg on a gun charge.
"I don't smoke and drink on occasions. I Love Women! The taste, touch, feel, smell, sight, and hearing of a woman. I am open to receive any and all letters and visits if it gets to that. I'm a good listener and I always write back!"
Watchdog notified the federal Bureau of Prisons and Facebook of the pages this week, and both organizations said they would investigate.
Prison bureau spokesman Chris Burke said inmates aren't allowed access to the Internet, and the pages likely are the work of friends and family who post information to Facebook on the inmates' behalf.
That would violate Facebook rules, but not the law. Burke said he couldn't review the pages himself because his office doesn't have access to Facebook.
"I'm not aware of a case in which an inmate has been caught updating a Facebook page from within one of our prisons," Burke stated in an e-mail. "Based on the ease in which 3rd parties can legally post to Facebook on behalf of inmates, we do not believe it is a systemic problem."
Federal inmates can contact people outside prison through a computer system called TRULINCS, which allows them to send and receive electronic messages without granting them access to the Internet, prison officials said.
The idea is to help inmates strengthen family ties so they will have an easier time re- entering the community when they are released.
Messages are screened for security issues and passed through a privately contracted website called CorrLinks. This is the site that forwarded Cotto's friend request to Brennan.
She, like others who are contacted, have the option of blocking those inmate requests and further correspondence.
Atul Gupta is chief executive officer of Iowa-based Advanced Technologies Group, which runs CorrLinks. He said Cotto could have come across Brennan's e-mail through any number of means, but the inmate did not get it by accessing Facebook through CorrLinks, he said.
"There is no Internet access, period," he said. "All they are allowed to do is write a message, just like writing a letter."
Some of the inmate pages Brennan and Watchdog found indicated that posts were being updated with mobile phones, a sign that the inmate may have a contraband device. One inmate even advised his friends to e-mail their phone numbers because his "phone is pre-paid so you dont have to worry about collect calls."
However the inmates are reaching Facebook, Brennan said she feels strongly that they have no place there. Some of these prisoners have hundreds of friends. Just who are they talking to, and about what, she wonders. What if impressionable children fall into their reach?
"If they want some sort of social network for prisoners, then they should create something else," she said. "But it shouldn't be Facebook or some site where they can get to just anyone."