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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.

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And in Texas last week, inmate David Puckett escaped from Stiles Unit prison in Beaumont using a smart phone to befriend and cajole a Facebook fan who eventually helped in the breakout – one in a long string of cellphone related incidents in Texas facilities, which are some of the most locked-down and secure in the country, says Ms. Deitch, the University of Texas prison policy expert. Puckett was eventually apprehended in Nebraska.

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"[Social media use by prisoners] is truly an insult to society, and by being silent on this issue we were putting out the message that crime does pay," say Gilliard. "You see guys on Facebook, they've got smiles on their faces, and here it is convenient for them to go to prison and get on Facebook, have a good time, and talk to their friends, and it's all being paid for by taxpayers, by people who haven't committed any crime."

Prisoners' free-speech rights

In 2003, a federal judge rejected the premise of an Arizona law that prohibited anyone from helping inmates access the Internet through indirect means, such as messages passed along in phone calls or letters, which were then posted by friends and family. The judge said that states could prohibit prisoners from using the Internet, but could not prohibit them from accessing the online world through proxies.

"The very nature of the internet medium makes prisons have these very strict rules on internet access, because, frankly, [prison officials] see them as tools to quickly organize a criminal enterprise – but that doesn’t mean that the content of the message itself should be suppressed," says Margaret Winter, associate director of the ACLU's National Prison Project.

She cites Martin Luther King Jr.'s "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" as one example of the kind of widely distributed prison communication that the South Carolina bill would criminalize.

"I'm not making the outrageous claim that every communication that goes out of prison is some great, world-changing human-rights document, but that ... the mere fact that a person is a prisoner does not mean that they are not entitled to try to speak to the world," she adds.

The South Carolina Facebook felon bill has the support of House Speaker Bobby Harrell as well as officials from the state's juvenile detention system, says Gilliard.

Missing the point?

But focusing on inmate behavior could also take the focus off the difficult challenge of preventing contraband goods. "Prisons are cities and they need to be stocked with supplies all the time, and that's how [most] contraband comes in," says Deitch, who also points the finger at corrupt guards.

"That said, I think it's entirely the wrong approach to criminalize having a Facebook or Twitter account. What needs to happen is you solve the contraband problem, and then you make [social media access] a violation of administrative rules," she adds. "There's plenty of ways to control prisoners' behavior in a well-run correctional system that doesn't involve criminalizing the behavior."


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