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Digital Freedom - Should Prisoners Be Allowed on Facebook?

What rights to online activity does a prison inmate really have? Full access? Limited access? None? It's a very difficult topic, social media gives people in prison the freedom to keep in contact with their loved ones on the outside much more easily, but there will always be a chance that some will abuse the system. The ratio might actually be a little better for inmates than it is for people on the outside, in those terms, but the key difference is that if someone gets caught soliciting illegal activity or threatening people online in the outside world, they get in trouble, if it happens in prison, the prison gets in trouble. 

Recently, Facebook made their policies about inmate account removal (in the US) more stringent. They now require much more information about exactly why the account needs to be taken down, including an active demonstration of exactly how the inmate has violated the law. This policy is far more in line with freedom of speech than the previous policy, which basically enabled prisons to suspend accounts on a whim, but is it better? I would say that it is, but it isn't perfect by any means.

For one thing, it's anything but universal. Not only do some facilities outright ban Facebook use, they sometimes treat it as a major offence. One South Carolina prisoner was found to have posted to Facebook 38 times, he was sentenced to 37 years of solitary confinement, stripping him of 74 years' worth of visitation, food and phone privileges. Many inmates are granted online access even in the most harshly regimented prisons but Facebook is always a heavier issue, given that it's basically an extension of our daily lives.

Conversely, there is evidence to suggest that Facebook use might actually help prisoners integrate with society again, making their transition back to everyday life easier once they're released. There are groups which allow former inmates to advise current inmates, family events are organised through it and numerous prison charities operate primarily through Facebook. There is a lot of validity to the notion that by taking away a prisoner's right to use Facebook, you are actively hindering their rehabilitation, and isn't that the entire point of the system in the first place?

Of course, in some ways, Facebook would make it markedly easier for those so inclined to continue to orchestrate criminal activity even whilst inside, but that can be done over the phone as well and nobody is arguing that phone access should get taken away. What do get taken away are contraband smartphones, which are increasingly becoming an issue not only in US prisons but elsewhere in the world. That being said, I'd say it's a safe bet that this is a much bigger issue in prisons where internet and social media access is either more strictly prohibited or even forbidden.

The solution seems to be more co-operation between Facebook and the prisons in regulating the system and making sure that the right to use Facebook isn't abused, but it's a very subjective thing and being even-handed about it is never going to be easy. Sadly, many prisons simply are not interested in avenues which allow inmates to more easily contact the outside world and better rehabilitate themselves, preferring to simply keep them in line until that parole date comes around.

Progressing the way social media access is addressed in prison is just a smaller part of the wider debate about how prisons are being run in general, but Facebook clearly recognise that they have some bearing on how it all fits together and they're using it responsibly. 

Callum Davies

Callum is a film school graduate who is now making a name for himself as a journalist and content writer. His vices include flat whites and 90s hip-hop. Follow him @CallumAtSMF

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Digital Freedom - Should Prisoners Be Allowed on Facebook? Reviewed by Unknown on Saturday, June 13, 2015 Rating: 5

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