In South Carolina's prisons, an inmate who secretly writes Facebook posts about missing his family can be punished the same way as one who rapes a cellmate. Hundreds of inmates are being handed down indefensibly harsh punishments for using social media, including one man, Tyheem Henry, who was sentenced to over 37 years in solitary confinement for writing 38 Facebook posts.
In addition to almost four decades of solitary confinement, Henry lost 74 years of canteen, phone, and visiting privileges. His case is extreme, but he's not the only one: The Electronic Frontier Foundation discovered over 400 cases over the past three years where inmates were disciplined for social networking as Level 1 violations, the same as rioting, homicide, hostage-taking, and a host of much more violent and serious transgressions. More than 40 prisoners got over two years in the hole. What the hell?
The EFF looked into the reasoning behind the long sentences:
The sentences are so long because SCDC issues a separate Level 1 violation for each day that an inmate accesses a social network. An inmate who posts five status updates over five days, would receive five separate Level 1 violations, while an inmate who posted 100 updates in one day would receive only one.
In other words, 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.
In Henry's case, a right-wing blog called Charleston Thug Life had pointed out his Facebook posts prior to his punishment; perhaps the pressure to crack down on Henry's illicit posts contributed to his nearly four-decade isolation punishment. After documenting Henry's habit of illegally posting to Facebook, Charleston Thug Life posted an update celebrating how South Carolina prison system now takes the blog's recommendations of who to investigate:
Since October of 2013 we have worked well with the assigned liaison at SCDC. When we find an inmate using a contraband cell phone and using social media we still document the available evidence. We also immediately notify SCDC of what we have found.
Whatever constitutes a proportional response, this is the opposite of that. This is madness. Solitary confinement is so psychologically degrading it can irrevocably kill a person's will to live. The U.N. considers it torture.
In some cases, isolating a violent prisoner is necessary. But prisons should be working to minimize how many inmates are locked in solitary by pursuing more rehabilitative and less psychologically traumatizing confinements for non-violent violations. What's going on in South Carolina is an obscene example of maximizing opportunities to psychologically break inmates for frivolous crimes.
Doling out decades-long trips to the hole is an unconscionable and wholly inappropriate response to inmates using social media.
South Carolina has the most excessive and severe punishments here, but it's not the only state that equates Facebook posts with egregious acts. In New Mexico, as the EFF pointed out, an inmate went to the hole for two months after his family members went on Facebook on his behalf. In other states, however, draconian social media restrictions are getting challenged:
An Arizona law forbidding inmates from accessing the Internet through a third party was struck down as unconstitutional. The Florida Department of Corrections backtracked on a policy proposal similar to South Carolina's after the Florida Justice Institute and other civil liberties groups threatened litigation [PDF]. Just last week, the ACLU of Indiana filed a lawsuit alleging First Amendment violations when prison officials punished an inmate after his sister launched a social media campaign to get him freed.
These efforts to stop treating social media use like violent acts are necessary and important. Handing out brutal punishments for trivial infringements highlights how arbitrary and inhumane some rulings can be.
Henry he went to prison in the first place for a good reason. He nearly beat a man to death. His original punishment of fifteen years in prison was appropriate for his conviction of "Assault and Battery of a High and Aggravated Nature." But giving him 37 years in solitary for making whiny Facebook posts is a gross distortion of justice that degrades the integrity of the penal system. [AdWeek]
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