Hundreds of inmates in the South Carolina prison system have been punished with solitary confinement and other disciplinary measures because they accessed social networking sites like Facebook, according to a new report from the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF).
According to EFF researcher Dave Maass, documents obtained under the state’s Freedom of Information Act show that “prison officials have brought more than 400 disciplinary cases for ‘social networking’” within the last three years. The average punishment for a case of unauthorized social network usage was 512 days in “disciplinary detention,” or solitary confinement.
Many state correctional systems seek to tightly control inmates’ social media access. Prisoners often attempt to circumvent these restrictions by asking friends and family members to post to their social media accounts, or by using cell phones that have been smuggled into prison. California’s corrections department “has seized more than 30,000 cell phones from state facilities since 2012,” according to Fusion.
South Carolina Department of Corrections (SCDC) director Bruce Stirling told Al Jazeera in a statement that his department is “no different from any other corrections department across the country dealing with this issue.”
Maass replied that he would “love to see them substantiate that,” and noted that the punishments meted out by states such as New Mexico have not compared in their harshness. One South Carolina inmate mentioned in Maass’s report was reportedly punished with 37.5 years of solitary confinement after he posted 38 times on Facebook.
Stirling said in his statement that South Carolina’s policy was a response to a very real security threat. In 2012, a contraband phone was allegedly used to orchestrate an attack on a South Carolina corrections officer. Two years later, the state’s corrections department turned “facilitation, conspiracy, aiding, [or] abetting in the creation or updating of an internet web site or social networking site” into a Level 1 offense — the same category applied to sexual assault, homicide and rioting.
“We have to look no further than our own S.C. corrections officer, Captain [Robert] Johnson, who was shot six times in his home due to an attempted contract killing via a contraband cell phone,” said Stirling in his statement. “We take the use of contraband cell phones and social media by inmates very seriously, and the punishment for using them is severe."
But Maass questioned why such harsh penalties would be levied for unauthorized social media access in addition to contraband cell phone use. He also wondered why inmates were punished for each day of social media access rather than the volume of posts they wrote for social media, such that, in his words, “an inmate who posts 200 posts to Facebook in one day gets half the punishment of somebody who posts two posts over two days."
“I’m a little baffled by this thing,” said Maass. “I think they’re basically just trotting out a tragedy to justify an extreme policy."