In April, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) effectively banned prisoners from using social media accounts. The new rule, in the Offender Orientation Handbook, stated that inmates "are prohibited from maintaining active social media accounts for the purposes of soliciting, updating, or engaging others, through a third party or otherwise."
"Offenders have used social media accounts to sell items over the internet based on the notoriety of their crime, harass victims or victim's families, and continue their criminal activity," a TDCJ spokesman told VICE. "The agency will take all of the necessary steps to prevent that from happening."
Inmates don't usually have internet access themselves, of course—to maintain an active social media presence or answer emails, they generally communicate by sending letters to their friends and families, who run their accounts for them. (Some inmates have smartphones smuggled into prison.) The TDCJ rule was meant to stop this sort of proxy facebooking and tweeting, and the censoring of the activities of non-incarcerated people was one reason some civil rights activists oppose the rule.
Texas isn't the only state cracking down on social media. Last year, the South Carolina Department of Corrections made the news for punishing inmates with Facebook accounts with solitary confinement; California officials have been accused of deleting records of Facebook censorship in prisons; Maine now prohibits inmates from publishing their writing on blogs.
When I was in prison, I used Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram—through mailing hard copy letters to my wife—to build a career as a writer and stay in touch with my family, friends, and the world in general during my incarceration. Social media gave me hope and inspiration for a better life. It made me realize there was a light at the end of the tunnel, and that I could form and rekindle relationships with law-abiding citizens, instead of the criminals I was locked up with.
I think that aggressive bans on social media use by prisoners seriously hurt inmates' chances to rehabilitate themselves, and I'm not the only one who feels that way.
"These policies are unnecessary, short-sighted, and bad for public safety," David C. Fathi, the Director of the ACLU's National Prison Project, told me. "More than 95 percent of prisoners are ultimately coming home to be our neighbors, and research overwhelmingly shows that prisoners who remain connected to the outside world while they're incarcerated are more likely to succeed and remain crime-free after release."
Fathi believes correctional institutions should be encouraging prisoners to engage and connect with the world, not punishing them for doing so. Social media can prepare an incarcerated person for success. Michael Santos, who served 26 years in federal prison for a nonviolent cocaine conspiracy charge and now works to provide educational opportunities for prisoners, is a perfect example.
"Through a wide following that I built indirectly on Facebook and Twitter under Earning Freedom, I succeeded in getting publishing contracts," Santos, who has written for VICE, said. "Within three weeks of being released from 26 years in federal prison, San Francisco State University hired me as an adjunct professor. If I didn't have access to social media, even indirectly, I wouldn't have had the strong support system." Three years after his release, he's a homeowner, a landlord, and an employer.
Erik Jensen is a former prisoner who served 12 years in the New York state prison system and now appears as a criminal justice reform advocate on CNN and MSNBC. He too believes banning social media for prisoners can be damaging to their reentry efforts.
"The benefits of social media outweigh any perceived security measures," Jensen said. "It's a great tool to keep prisoners active and up to date with what's going on in society. Why wouldn't we want those who are in correctional facilities to be involved and know what is going on outside?"
The other issue, some experts say, is that stopping prisoners' loved ones from posting messages on social media is unconstitutional.
"Prison policies banning prisoners from social media violate the First Amendment rights of both prisoners and the ordinary citizens on the outside who maintain accounts for them," the ACLU's Fathi said. "The Texas prison system has no business telling a free person in New York or Canada or Sweden what she can or can't post on the internet."
Jeffrey Ian Ross, a criminologist at the University of Baltimore, agrees.
"Forbidding inmates to use social media, through third parties, smacks of unnecessary censorship," Ross told VICE. "The recipients of the messages that the social media may reach, may be able to assist those who are incarcerated with their legal motions, appeals, etc, and may assist in their possible rehabilitation."
Some prison systems are experimenting with providing prisoners with access to email and tablets. The federal Bureau of Prisons lets inmates use a monitored email system, and states like Ohio and Michigan allow prisoners to buy tablets made by a company called JPay, devices that give them limited access to the outside world. This is a more humane direction for prisons to go in, even if monitoring their online communications is more work for officials.
"Policing social media would require both additional resources and individuals who are skilled in monitoring and collating these communications, both of which are in short supply," Ross said. "If social media is used by inmates and their supporters on the outside to mock or insult the victim of a crime, then the social media use should be vigorously opposed. These sorts of activities typically violate community standards and after a handful of complaints, social media websites usually remove these. But if the social media communications are used to educate and/or solicit legal support and/or relief, I see nothing wrong."
The bottom line is that if we want inmates to be able to return to society, we need to give them ways, limited though they may be, of communicating with that society.
"I think all that enables incarcerated people to function in post-prison life is vital, including internet usage," added Dr. Baz Dreisinger, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. "For educational programs like the Prison-to-College Pipeline [an initiative to increase the amount of prisoners and ex-cons who go to college], access to the internet would be a vastly powerful thing."
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