Almost 400 inmates in South Carolina have spent time in solitary confinement for using social media websites, a violation the state Department of Corrections defines as equal to murdering or raping a fellow inmate, according to an Electronic Frontier Foundation investigation.
The digital rights group discovered through a public information request that prison officials have filed more than 400 disciplinary actions against prisoners who were found to be using cellphones smuggled behind bars to access Facebook or who gave their personal account information to friends or family to update their accounts. And since 2012, the South Carolina Department of Corrections has defined “creating and/or assisting with a social networking site” as a Level 1 offense, punishable by solitary confinement or the removal of privileges like phone access or visitation time.
Each time an inmate accesses Facebook is counted as a separate Level 1 violation, which leads to excessive punishments like inmates being put in isolation for years at a time, the report said.
“If a South Carolina inmate caused a riot, took three hostages, murdered them, stole their clothes, and then escaped, he could still wind up with fewer Level 1 offenses than an inmate who updated Facebook every day for two weeks,” the EFF said in its report.
By classifying social media violations as Level 1, the SCDC is sending so many inmates to solitary confinement that prisons in the state have often run out of space in their confinement facilities, according to the report.
The most severe punishments the EFF saw for using social media included:
In October 2013, Tyheem Henry received 13,680 days (37.5 years) in disciplinary detention and lost 27,360 day (74 years) worth of telephone, visitation, and canteen privileges, and 69 days of good time—all for 38 posts on Facebook.
In June 2014, Walter Brown received 12,600 days (34.5 years) in disciplinary detention and lost 25,200 days (69 years) in telephone, visitation, and canteen privileges, and 875 days (2.4 years) of good time—all for 35 posts on Facebook.
In May 2014, Jonathan McClain received 9,000 days (24.6 years) in disciplinary detention and lost 18,000 days (49 years) in telephone, visitation, and canteen privileges, and 30 days of good time—all for 25 posts on Facebook.
Facebook has also assisted the SCDC in censoring its inmates and violating their privacy. The EFF found that in response to requests from state officials, Facebook has suspended inmates’ profiles for violating the terms of service which restrict users from sharing their account information with third parties. But according to the report, Facebook is also complying with SCDC requests to suspend profiles of inmates who have not violated its terms of service and SCDC staff members have violated Facebook’s terms of service by logging into inmates’ accounts after learning their passwords.
Prisons across the country use solitary confinement to punish inmates for nonviolent offenses, including shouting obscenities and disobeying orders. But the isolation of inmates is associated with severe psychological affects, even after just a few days, ranging from hallucinations and extreme paranoia to persistent post-traumatic stress disorder and irritability. Given the extreme effects, a number of states have begun limiting the categories of inmates that can spend time in solitary — New York recently said it would stop putting adolescents in isolation. But around 80,000 U.S. inmates are still held in confinement at any given time, including many juveniles and inmates with mental illness.