South Carolina Says It's A Felony For Prisoners To Look At Facebook; Sends Many To Solitary Confinement

from the felony-facebooking dept

Dave Maass, over at EFF, has an absolutely insane story about how the South Carolina Department of Corrections (SCDC) added a special new level 1 felony charge (for reference: murder, rape, rioting and hostage-taking are all level 1 felonies) for… using a social network while in prison. Yes, these individuals are already prisoners, but this draconian law and even more draconian enforcement means that hundreds of South Carolina prisons are facing extended sentences and long stays in solitary confinement for… posting to their Facebook page. And that’s not an exaggeration:

  • In October 2013, Tyheem Henry received 13,680 days (37.5 years) in disciplinary detention and lost 27,360 days (74 years) worth of telephone, visitation, and canteen privileges, and 69 days of good time?all for 38 posts on Facebook. 
  • In June 2014, Walter Brown received 12,600 days (34.5 years) in disciplinary detention and lost 25,200 days (69 years) in telephone, visitation, and canteen privileges, and 875 days (2.4 years) of good time?all for 35 posts on Facebook.
  • In May 2014, Jonathan McClain received 9,000 days (24.6 years) in disciplinary detention and lost 18,000 days (49 years) in telephone, visitation, and canteen privileges, and 30 days of good time?all for 25 posts on Facebook.
  • Why so harsh? The SCDC says that it’s a separate felony for each day that an inmate uses a social media site (oddly, you can do as much as you want in a single day and it’s just a single felony — but new day, new felony). And, of course, “social media” is defined broadly as well:

    South Carolina adopted a Level 1 social media offense [PDF] to punish ?Creating and/or Assisting With A Social Networking Site,? defined as: ?The facilitation, conspiracy, aiding, abetting in the creation or updating of an Internet web site or social networking site.?

    SCDC defines ?social networking? very broadly, covering everything from YouTube and Twitter to blogs and email, although all of the cases EFF reviewed [PDF] involved Facebook. Investigations are conducted by corrections officers and inmates are convicted during disciplinary hearings that often last mere minutes.

    Since the policy was implemented, SCDC has brought 432 disciplinary cases against 397 inmates, with more than 40 inmates receiving more than two years in solitary confinement [PDF].

    There’s a lot more to Maass’s article, and it’s well worth reading. He also takes Facebook to task for helping the SCDC takedown prisoners’ Facebook profiles. Facebook has set up an easy form, which can lead to widespread abuse, and it doesn’t appear that Facebook does much, if anything, to check to see if the accounts actually abuse the company’s terms of service. There are lots of problems with the criminal justice and prison systems in the US, and there may be legitimate reasons to limit access to social media for prisoners (though that seems like a stretch in many cases). But to make it an additional felony and to lock up people for years because of it? How is that not cruel and unusual punishment?

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    Comments on “South Carolina Says It's A Felony For Prisoners To Look At Facebook; Sends Many To Solitary Confinement”

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    52 Comments
    Just Another Anonymous Troll says:

    For one thing, almost 40 years in solitary is both cruel and unusual. But seriously? Facebook is a felony for prisoners on the order of rape and murder? What the hell! It seems like the only good reason for this would be to make it harder for inmates to communicate to others outside the prison, making it easier to hide abuses.

    Anonymous Coward says:

    Re: Re:

    — It seems like the only good reason for this would be to make it harder for inmates to communicate to others outside the prison, making it easier to hide abuses.

    This must be what goes on in the minds of South Carolina politicians/wardens:
    You know, we need to keep these prisoners from communicating to outside criminals and I have the perfect solution! Give them access to the Internet but if they post anything we just lock them up longer! That punishment will deter this undesired behaviour!

    Anonymous Coward says:

    Re: Re:

    Or because private prisons want an excuse to keep ‘money makers’, oh pardon me, ‘prisoners’ in their prisons longer so they can milk more money from the tax payers.

    This story reminds me so much of a Family Guy episode a few years ago. In the episode Peter and his friends go on a road trip somewhere in the South, and corrupt cops arrest them on bogus charges. And then kept extending their 30 day prison sentence indefinitely because they didn’t want to let anyone ever leave prison.

    That One Guy (profile) says:

    When sadists run the prisons

    There is no possible excuse for such a completely insane punishment other than simply ‘Because we can’.

    Allowing prisoners access to the internet, and then hitting them with felony level punishments for using it ‘wrong’, with ‘wrong’ in this case being ‘How the vast majority of people online use it’, is absolutely insane, and not even remotely reasonable or fair.

    Another indicator that the policy is simply to screw with the lives of the prisoners and watch them suffer is this: If interacting with sites like Facebook is grounds for a felony, then why can the prisoners access it at all? Why isn’t it completely blocked, such that they couldn’t access it on the prison’s network, rather than accessible, but with a massive cudgel poised over the head of anyone who goes to the site?

    If posting to social media is going to be treated as a felony, this horrible crime that deserves decades of prison time, the only possible reason it could even be possible to access any sites that would qualify under the policy as a ‘social media site’ is if they want the prisoners to go to those sites, just so they can slam them with extra prison time.

    Vic says:

    “The facilitation, conspiracy, aiding, abetting in the creation or updating of an Internet web site or social networking site.”

    Especially “… or updating of an Internet web site …” – doesn’t any search on Google update Google’s site (search terms, frequency)? So, it’s not just the social networks. Why don’t they just pull the plug on the Internet access?

    Anonymous Coward says:

    I spent 12 years in a Texas prison. My question is, What the hell were they doing with an internet capable device? You ain’t got that luxury in a Texas prison. Never heard of such a thing. The last thing an inmate needs to be doing is communicating with the free world. Cell phones are smuggled in on occasion but most max units block all cell signals making it next to impossible to use anyway. This is crazy.

    Anonymous Coward says:

    Re: Re:

    Yes this is about the only thing I can come up with as well.
    There is NO reason not to simply block Facebook and other sites from the network and lock down the computers. It is quite easy and so I blame the prison staff for luring prisoners to breaking the rules.
    Sure, the inmates maybe deserve a small slap on the wrist, but if you put your food in front of a starving man, you can make almost anyone a thief.
    In no way do I condone the crimes these people committed and they absolutely belong behind bars, but this is just cruel.

    Anonymous Coward says:

    Re: Re: Re:

    “There is NO reason not to simply block Facebook and other sites from the network and lock down the computers.”

    Uh, cuz the staff use those same computers too. That’s the obvious implication, can’t deprive the staff of their perks. In fact, now we think about it, how do we know malicious staff didn’t impersonate…… If you’re a prisoner, how do you prove you didn’t use a computer when they say you must have, they keep the records and they keep any video footage.

    Anonymous Coward says:

    Re: Re: Re: Re:

    And that is why you have a directory of users and computers. Almost every company has different access for different users. Whether that is fileshares on a server or access to the internet.
    Let me give you an example: in our production environment the computers don’t need access to the internet and it is unsafe, so we can block that 4 different ways.
    1. Block the network the computers are on.
    2. Block the computers themselves, either at the border to the internet or in said directory.
    3. Block the user that is logged on, so that other approved users who logs in on that computer will have access.
    4. Packet inspection where you check the data for who the intended receiver is or what kind of data is sent.
    I assure you that this is quite common and a simple task for most IT administrators. It is as easy to block specific sites, except you need to have a list of those sites, which can be found on the internet.
    So even if the staff were to use these computers (Wouldn’t they have their own?) they could have access to every site, while the next prisoner to log on wouldn’t be able to post a photo of the prisonfood to instagram.
    There is no reason why they aren’t doing this in the simplest of ways.
    It is so dumb that it has to be on purpose.

    ShadowCaptian (profile) says:

    Re: Re: Entrapment anyone?

    I wonder of the various regulations covering entrapment actions by Law Enforcement apply to prison officers. In my opinion, providing an inmate with an UN-FILTERED internet connection, and then tossing them in the slammer for using one of the MOST VISITED / POPULAR SITES in the world is bullseye entrapment.

    The worst part is, what if it’s not the prisoner actually posting to facebook, but one of those many sites that integrate into the facebook API?

    “I’m sorry mr warden, but i was just playing “Super Burger Diner v2.0”, and it posted automagically on my profile when i reached the “YouAreTheBurgerBaron” Level. How was i to know that my high score was the last 5 digits of a phone number?”

    The US Prison system is going mental even…

    btr1701 (profile) says:

    Re: Do the guards also have this same restriction

    Why would the guards, judges, cops, and court staff be subject to these restrictions? They’re not convicted felons in prison.

    I don’t agree with the way this has been implemented, but it’s asinine to suggest that guards and judges should have to live under the same rules and restrictions as prison inmates.

    Anonymous Coward says:

    Another problem with excessive sentences - nothing left to lose

    Suppose an inmate gets hit with a huge sentence, matching or exceeding the ones mentioned in the article. Realistically, barring a formal pardon, he will die in prison, from old age if nothing else. At that point, what reason does he have to care about his actions?

    It’s the same problem you have with excessive initial sentences. If the penalty for robbery is death, and the penalty for murder is death, why should a robber not kill his victim, eliminating a witness and potentially increasing his chances of getting away?

    Anonymous Coward says:

    Re: Another problem with excessive sentences - nothing left to lose

    “If the penalty for robbery is death, and the penalty for murder is death, why should a robber not kill his victim, eliminating a witness and potentially increasing his chances of getting away?”

    Because the robber has a conscience, and knows that murder is worse than robbery, no matter what the law says.

    R.H. (profile) says:

    A Missing Point

    As I understand the article, it’s also a Level 1 offense to (during a visitation or phone call for example) direct someone ‘on the outside’ to update your profile/website. Doing so nets the same punishment and they’ll try to have Facebook kill your profile for a violation of their ToS (providing a third-party with your password). With their overbroad definition of social media, asking a visitor to send an email or create an online petition for your freedom would even be an offense.

    That, to me, is the larger issue here. This action is simply overkill if you’re simply trying to keep inmates from running criminal enterprises or intimidating witnesses from behind bars, as there are already laws against those actions. Laws which, if convicted of violating, will actually increase an inmate’s prison sentence unlike these penalties, many of which are slated to run longer than the inmate is even imprisoned.

    Anonymous Coward says:

    Re: Re:

    you assume they are in for murder.

    They could be victims of the war on drugs, or even people falsely convicted. been quite the scandal about that lately. Where it has come out DE’s intentionally lied to keep their conviction record high.

    No doubt some are murderers but silly to assume they all are

    Anonymous Coward says:

    They haven’t made prisoners updating social media a felony. They’ve made it a level one offense. Offense in this case meaning a violation of the prison’s conduct policy, i.e. a disciplinary offense. The policy is exceedingly stupid because level one offenses are supposed to be things that are generally also felonies. But updating Facebook isn’t going to extend your sentence, just ensure you spend the rest of it in solitary. The policy is ridiculous enough without you twisting it even farther into absurdity. Doing so just gives the the idiots that made this policy a new goal to chase.

    Anonymous Coward says:

    Re: Huge editorial mistake in this article

    It’s still absurd to rate the infraction as class 1, and the motivation for doing so is really suspect, but yeah. This isn’t a criminal offence, it’s a violation of prison rules. There’s an important distinction between a felony, and act that is treated internally with the same punishment as a felony.

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