Facebook Now a Place for Prisoners, Too

Date of Alert: 
Friday, June 5, 2015

Civil rights advocates lobbied Facebook to stop automatically deleting all profiles of current American prisoners, The Daily Beast has learned. But the debate on whether someone is too dangerous ever to have one is still raging.

One day at work, Larissa admitted to logging onto Facebook “to see my kids’ Easter pictures.”

She had been put on work furlough because the Alabama Department of Corrections deemed her a low security risk. She was allowed to leave prison to work shifts at a local Burger King.

While Larissa was logged on, someone sent her a message and she replied.

But when a third party got wind of the back-and-forth, that person decided to report her breach of prison protocol and Larissa (whose last name is withheld for her protection) was found guilty of “unauthorized participation in social networking.”

Her telephone, canteen, and visiting privileges were taken away for 45 days. She lost six months of “good time.” For looking at pictures of her children on Facebook, Larissa would be away from her children for a half-year more.

With mass incarceration receiving increased criticism from people on both sides of the political spectrum, including presidential hopefuls like Hillary Clinton and Rick Perry, many are questioning whether severely limiting prisoner access to the outside world is really in the public’s interest.

But now Facebook at least is starting to change how it views prisoners. When it comes to pulling down a prisoner’s Facebook profile, the company will no longer simply take a prison’s word for it.

“Facebook did recently adjust their procedures,” says Dave Maass of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a San Francisco-based digital civil liberties nonprofit. “They’re now asking at least very basic questions of the prison before they take a prisoner’s page down—such as, ‘What exactly is the inmate doing that’s so dangerous?’”

A Facebook spokesperson adds in an emailed statement: “We work with law enforcement when we believe there is a genuine risk of physical harm or a direct threat to public safety.”

For years, the social media giant has been willing to take down almost any account a prison official asked them to, The Daily Beast has learned—despite a publicly stated policy that said otherwise.

Emails between the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) and Facebook—obtained by the Electronic Frontier Foundation through a Public Records Act request—reveal Facebook’s willingness to take down inmate profiles for “not following prison regulations” or simply “being incarcerated.”

“When we began to look into this about a year ago it seemed that Facebook was taking down inmate pages whenever a prison requested it, no questions asked,” says Maass.

After pressure from the EFF, each account will now be subject to more scrutiny than simply complying with requests from prison administrators.

The dominance of social media presents a daunting new challenge for prison officials and social media sites alike. It also brings about a potential opportunity for America’s incarcerated population. Stories like Larissa’s remind us how cruel prison policy can be in severing family ties—and how those unraveled ties can negatively affect a prisoner’s success once he or she gets out.