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August 10, 2011

Should a prison sentence necessarily halt all access to all social media for all purposes?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this recent AP piece, which is headlined "Calif. says Facebook will remove inmates' pages" and reports these developments:

Facebook has agreed to work with law enforcement agencies nationwide to remove accounts set up by inmates or posted on their behalf, in part because prisoners are using the social networking site to stalk victims and direct criminal activity, California prison officials said Monday.

It's the latest effort to combat a problem that has grown with the advent of smart phones and social networking sites. Last year a convicted child molester used a cell phone smuggled into prison to search his victim's Facebook and MySpace web pages, the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation said in announcing the agreement with Facebook. The inmate then sent sketches to the 17-year-old victim's home....

"Victims who fought hard to put their offenders behind bars are being re-victimized," said department spokeswoman Dana Toyama.  "It's evolving as Facebook has become a huge social networking site and a place for gang members to talk and coordinate inside and outside prison.  This is just one example of what they can do."

Inmates are permitted to retain Facebook profiles that were created before they went to prison, according to the department.  But Facebook will disable the account if it is used while the inmate is behind bars.  Prison officials said the problem has grown worse because of the growth in smuggled cell phones.  Six years ago the department confiscated 261 devices, compared to 10,760 last year and 7,284 in the first half of this year.

Facebook spokesman Andrew Noyes said prison officials' best response is to keep smart phones and other Internet devices out of prisons.  "We will disable accounts reported to us that are violating relevant U.S. laws or regulations or inmate accounts that are updated by someone on the outside," he said in an e-mailed statement.  "We will also take appropriate action against anyone who misuses Facebook to threaten or harass."

Noyes said Facebook has been cooperating with law enforcement for some time whenever it is notified of problems, but Toyama said California had previously asked Facebook to remove inmates' pages without success.  "We've really only been successful in taking down one account so far.  After this, we're looking to be able to do this more," Toyama said.

She said the Federal Bureau of Prisons first announced Monday that Facebook had agreed to take down any account that prison officials can confirm has been updated while an inmate is in prison.  The bureau's National Gang Intelligence Center also reported a growing problem of inmates with active Facebook accounts, Toyama said, but she could not provide a copy of the report because it is a confidential law enforcement bulletin.

I understand the many ways some prisoners might use social media like Facebook to do harm, but I also suspect many prisoners might much rather use social media (instead of, say, letters or phone calls or even emails) to keep family and friends updated on how they are doing while they serve their sentence.  And I read this article to suggest that even an update to a prisoner's Facebook page done by someone on the outside could lead to a social media "takedown."

These realities, combined with the fact that nearly 2.5 million persons are behind bars in the United States, perhaps suggests the next social-media opportunity.  Perhaps a clever programmer can and should develop a form of Facebook that is uniquely structured and regulated for use (and only proper usage) by persons who are incarcerated.  If well-developed in consultation with prison officials and experts in corrections policies and practices, this new form of social media (dare I call it FelonSpace?) perhaps could provide prisoners and their family and friends with social media benefits without the risk of harmful misuse.

August 10, 2011 at 05:20 PM | Permalink


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Certainly a much more cost effective, but difficult to monitor, method of communication.

Posted by: james | Aug 10, 2011 7:37:00 PM

if they are dumb enough to "take down" one setup by a regular citizen that has not been used for any criminal activity Facebook might find itself with a new owner after the lawsuit!

Posted by: rodsmith | Aug 10, 2011 8:00:24 PM

What an ass backwards way of dealing with a percevied problem. The AP needs a reporter who can answer the question "is the problem social media sites or is it smuggled cell phones"? Seems to me the BOP and other ccorections-minded people should get a handle on what they are responsible for which is in part interdicting contraband i.e., cell phones before they get into prison.

Posted by: ? | Aug 10, 2011 9:37:35 PM

I think this is a great post. One thing that I find the most helpful is number five. Sometimes when I write, I just let the flow of the words and information come out so much that I loose the purpose. It’s only after editing when I realize what I’ve done. There’s defiantly a lot of great tips here I’m going to try to be more aware of.

Posted by: abercrombie and fitch | Aug 11, 2011 2:29:50 AM

"And I read this article to suggest that even an update to a prisoner's Facebook page done by someone on the outside could lead to a social media "takedown.""

I just wanted to clarify (or question?) the meaning of "update" in this context. "Updating" in my mind means any changes to a person's profile that would require password access to enact. In other words, because only I have the password to my account, only I can "update" my Facebook page to post, for example, what I did this weekend, new pictures of friends, new groups that I join, etc.

If that is the author's meaning of "update," then it makes perfect sense to me that "updates" made to a prisoner's webpage by someone on the outside would lead to a page being removed, because in order to make those updates, a prisoner would have shared his log-in information with another person. Removal would not be triggered by someone else merely posting on a prisoner's wall or commenting on a prisoner's photo because those communications are not "updates" in the common use of that term.

Also, I have to think that it would be truly impossible to code a "FelonBook" that would only allow permissible social media communications. This is because the real problem here is not in the structure and coding of the website, which let's face it, is just a really elaborate and picto-graphically complex email network. The problem is in WHO a prisoner contacts and WHAT the prisoner says in any given communication. No computer program could screen for social media communications that are harmful to victims, that direct gang activity, or that coordinate violence within (or outside) the prison walls. This requires an intelligent oversight that computer programming simply can't achieve. And administering that intelligent oversight would be impossible (or prohibitively costly): imagine the prison mailroom times ten.

To the extent that this problem is real (and I honestly suspect that it is), the "takedown" method is likely the only way to combat it - as offensive to liberty as that might seem.

Posted by: RecentLawGrad | Aug 11, 2011 8:50:24 AM

You can monitor it, but that would mean investing in technology to monitor the communication.

Posted by: PA CLE | Aug 11, 2011 10:55:55 AM

Anyone ever heard of the First Amendment and the case law which acknowledges prisoners rights in re: communication with the "free-world"?

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