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Is 'Check it out, bro, I'm in prison!' an appropriate Facebook status update?

Prisoners aren't allowed smart phones, but that doesn't keep at least a few enterprising inmates from using Facebook and Twitter. South Carolina is considering a ban on prison Facebook updates.

By Staff writer / March 21, 2011

An undated picture of Islam Dunn’s Facebook page. Dunn is a prisoner in South Carolina who used a contraband cellphone to update his Facebook status and communicate with friends and family from prison.

AP

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Atlanta

A first-of-its-kind "Facebook felon" bill, now working its way through the South Carolina legislature, would impose a $500 fine and as many as 30 more days in jail for any prisoner caught creating or using a Facebook or Twitter account.

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In some jails nationwide, inmates are managing to get their hands on smart phones and surreptitiously tap out pithy updates, send messages to the outside world, and even post photos after lights-out.

It is a new wrinkle on the common problem of contraband cellphones in prison, which have been used to order outside associates around, intimidate potential witnesses, and even order gangland hits. States prison systems from Georgia to California have cracked down on contraband cellphones, with some also considering ways to jam wireless communications inside prisons.

For South Carolina state Rep. Wendell Gilliard, a law-and-order Democrat from Charleston, the use of social media by prisoners is "a slap in the face" to both society and to victims. But criminalizing cell block use of social media could infringe on First Amendment rights, some experts say. Moreover, they say, the law could obscure the real problem now being brought to light in prisons: an unchecked flow of contraband, including drugs and cellphones.

"This is a meaningless strategy that makes it look like you're doing something about contraband and you're not," says Michele Deitch, a prison policy expert at the University of Texas at Austin. "Adding 30 days to someone's sentence is not going to keep them from doing this. What needs to happen is better controls within the prison."

SOUND OFF: Read what our Facebook fans have to say about Facebook usage in prisons

'An insult to society'

For its part, Facebook prohibits third-party profiles and is also known to turn off prisoner pages once the company becomes aware of them. But for prison officials keeping the lid on restive prison populations clamoring for any kind of access to the outside, controlling smartphones and Twitter accounts is a never-ending battle, and one in which prisoners often gain the upper hand.

State Representative Gilliard, the bill sponsor, cites one story in particular where a rape victim found her imprisoned attacker on Facebook, grinning in a photoshopped image where he was shown with a lady on each arm. He says officials have also discovered coded Facebook messages that imply threats or guide drug deals.

The Associated Press recounted the tale of one South Carolina prisoner named Islam Dunn. In jail for being part of a gang who robbed a house and killed one person, Mr. Dunn admitted his Facebook use to a reporter. Among his jailhouse updates: "All i want is my life bac," and, after his birthday, "got SO high." Prison officials in South Carolina were not aware Dunn had a social media account.

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