Pendarvis Harshaw

Last week, in our "Tech Behind Bars" series, we explored the intersection of technology and prisons, including the many ways inmates are using contraband gadgets to stay connected to the world outside their walls. Now, a new report finds that prisons in South Carolina are punishing hundreds of inmates for using Facebook and other social networking sites by giving them years or decades in solitary confinement.

The report, by the Electronic Frontier Foundation based on a request under South Carolina's Freedom of Information Act, found more than 400 examples of South Carolina prisons bringing disciplinary action against inmates for "social networking," including posting on Facebook. In 16 cases, the EFF found, inmates had received more than a decade of "disciplinary detention," which includes solitary confinement and the loss of visitation privileges, for using social networking sites. One inmate had received 37.5 years of disciplinary detention for posting on Facebook 38 times. These infractions are so common, the EFF found, that South Carolina prisons are running out of space in their solitary confinement units, and have been forced to suspend sentences as a result.

via EFF

Part of the issue is that prisons in South Carolina count each day of "Creating and/or Assisting With A Social Networking Site" as a separate Level 1 violation — meaning that if an inmate updates his Facebook status from a contraband smartphone one day, sends a WhatsApp message the next day, and likes a photo on Instagram the following day, he's committed three Level 1 violations. (Whereas if he did all of that in a single day, he would only have committed one.)


"In other words," the EFF writes, "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 EFF also found that Facebook had been helping South Carolina prison officials remove accounts belonging to inmates without proof that the inmates had violated the site's terms of service, a practice that conflicts with Facebook's stated account removal policy. Correctional officials in South Carolina had also created fake Facebook profiles in order to catch inmates using the site, in violation of Facebook's terms of service. (Details about how, exactly, these Facebook profiles were used were shielded from the EFF's FOIA request.)

One e-mail chain obtained by the EFF found that Facebook had removed an inmate's account for "not following inmate regulations" upon request by a South Carolina prison investigator, even though accessing the site through a contraband cell phone is not, in and of itself, a violation of Facebook's terms of service.

via EFF

Facebook denies that it removes inmate accounts as a matter of procedure, but implies that it takes a user's imprisonment as a clue that an account may be compromised. In a statement to Fusion, a Facebook spokesman said, "Accessing Facebook from prison does not violate our terms, but allowing another person to access your account on your behalf does. 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."


Fusion's recent investigation found evidence of social networking by dozens of current inmates, all of whom could face harsh consequences if caught. California's correctional department alone has seized more than 30,000 contraband cell phones since 2012. And the FCC has said that stopping the flood of cell phones into correctional facilities is a "top priority," due to the potential for these devices to be used to commit further crimes.

Part of the reason inmates are attracted to contraband phones and social networks is that the rates charged by official prison phone and video visitation providers are often extraordinarily high — $1 or more per minute. For inmates who can't afford to pay those rates regularly, using Facebook to stay in contact with friends and family might be a risk worth taking.

In the coming years, prison systems will need to overhaul their rules about technology use; that much is clear. What's less clear is what role companies like Facebook will have in assisting in the crackdown on illicit use in the meantime. Facebook's stated mission is to connect the world, and founder Mark Zuckerberg has stated that he believes that "connectivity is a human right." From the site's actions so far, it's unclear whether that right extends to the millions of Americans who are incarcerated each year.