TX Prison Inmates Face Solitary Confinement for Social Media Presence

Ben Keller

Texas Prison Inmates Face Solitary Confinement for Social Media Presence Maintained by Families

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice developed a new policy that would punish inmates for having a social media presence, even if that presence is maintained by their family on their behalf.

Updated on April 1, the new Offender Orientation Handbook rule prohibits Texas inmates from “maintaining active social media accounts for the purposes of soliciting, updating, or engaging others.”

Even if they’re trying to raise awareness about unspeakable prison conditions or their actual guilt or innocence that landed them there, which should be protected under the First Amendment.

According to Fusion, Texas Department of Corrections Spokesperson Jason Clark responded to the new rule in an email.

“Offenders have used social media accounts to sell items over the internet based on the notoriety of their crime, harass victims or victim’s families, and continue their criminal activity. The agency will take all of the necessary steps to prevent that from happening.”

Clark said department of corrections will work with social media companies and request the accounts to be taken down.

Inmates who are discovered to have social media accounts would be subject to a level three disciplinary violation, which would land them in solitary confinement for 45 days.

According to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, U.S. prisons have arranged with Facebook to take down inmates’ accounts since 2011.

Often times no questions asked.

And even if no law was ever violated.

Records obtained by EFF revealed that Facebook has already secretly censored hundreds or thousands of inmate accounts.

In the aftermath of that discovery, prison officials found that Facebook is being a bit more judicious when mulling over whether to suspend an account or not.

But they’re still doing it.

Some say Facebook isn’t transparent about how they handle the censorship issue because they are still cooperating with state and federal prisons to block inmates’ social media accounts.

And they’re not talking about it or sharing their records.

Prison officials say accessing social media through 3rd parties or family members isn’t the only way to access Facebook. They also manage to log in on smart phones, which are considered contraband in prison.

Facebook claims they only censor accounts that they’ve learned violate its community standards, which violates their terms of service.

Having a 3rd party manage a Facebook account is a violation of those standards even in the so-called free world.

Facebook also said it handles accounts engaged in criminal activity the same way they handle criminal outside of prison, by reporting it to law enforcement.

The company said they’re not in the business of enforcing prison regulations against inmates, and that they don’t consider prisoners who access the site themselves to be in violation of their terms of service.

But those claims failed to correlate with records produced by EFF.

In fact, the records showed that Facebook consistently and routinely took down accounts because inmates violated prison regulations. And even took down some who did nothing at all.

Yet Facebook CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, asserted in 2013, “I believe connectivity is a human right, and that if we work together we can make it a reality.”

But Zuckerberg’s statement doesn’t add up.

Facebook also developed a way to keep the request from prisons simple by making an “Inmate Takedown Request” page on which prison officials can make the request without leaving a trail that leads back to them.

No trail. No civil rights violation.

Further, nobody knows just how many accounts have been taken down because those records are unavailable.

Facebook refused to provide documentation about government censorship in its transparency report.

The bottom line for inmates is social media can be the only thing they have in some states that connects them to the outside world, even if they’re not directly behind the account.

Pat Hartwell, an anti-death penalty activist remarked, “these pages are beyond important because this is how the average joe finds out about the humanity of the people on death row.”

Hartwell currently updates a Facebook page for death row inmate Charles Flores.

But she removed his account so he wouldn’t get into trouble inside of prison.

Now, some are asking if the regulations are unconstitutional and encompass too much power.

Dave Maass, a researcher with EFF studied social media regulations and he believes that is the case.

“This policy violates free speech rights of both the inmates and the family members and friends of inmates,” Maass said. “I don’t think it’s appropriate for a prison to tell someone on the outside what they can and can’t post when it doesn’t involve criminal activity.”

Not only that, but if one prisoner has a beef with another, one way to attack them is to have someone they know create a social media account for that person.

Then that person goes away for 45 days if they’re found to be in violation of prison regulations.

Or even if they’re not.

In the end, the new policy really just a microcosm of the Texas prison system, and prison systems throughout the country.

One big mess.

And it’s going to take some sorting out.

One is not supposed to lose their Constitutional rights upon entering prison.

And while Texas currently doesn’t have social media in its prisons, the future is near.

Social media will likely become as common on the inside as phones (which Texas just recently installed in their prisons).

You’ll get one free post.

Any more than that will get you 45 days in the hole.

Talk about being in “Facebook jail”.


Citizen Journalism