In the South Carolina prison system, accessing Facebook is an offense on par with murder, rape, rioting, escape and hostage-taking.
Back in 2012, the South Carolina Department of Corrections (SCDC) made “Creating and/or Assisting With A Social Networking Site” a Level 1 offense [PDF], a category reserved for the most violent violations of prison conduct policies. It’s one of the most common Level 1 offense charges brought against inmates, many of whom, like most social network users, want to remain in contact with friends and family in the outside world and keep up on current events. Some inmates ask their families to access their online accounts for them, while many access the Internet themselves through a contraband cell phone (possession of which is yet another Level 1 offense).
Through a request under South Carolina’s Freedom of Information Act, EFF found that, over the last three years, prison officials have brought more than 400 hundred disciplinary cases for “social networking”—almost always for using Facebook. The offenses come with heavy penalties, such as years in solitary confinement and deprivation of virtually all privileges, including visitation and telephone access. In 16 cases, inmates were sentenced to more than a decade in what’s called disciplinary detention, with at least one inmate receiving more than 37 years in isolation.
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These policies have not gone unchallenged. An Arizona law forbidding inmates from accessing the Internet through a third party was struck down as unconstitutional. The Florida Department of Corrections backtracked on a policy proposal similar to South Carolina’s after the Florida Justice Institute and other civil liberties groups threatened litigation [PDF]. Just last week, the ACLU of Indiana filed a lawsuit alleging First Amendment violations when prison officials punished an inmate after his sister launched a social media campaign to get him freed.
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