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Should convicts be on social media? Facebook stands up for prisoner accounts

June 5, 2015, 9:25 PM UTC
A prison guard leading a prisoner along a corridor
Photograph by Getty Images/fStop

Facebook has made an important change about how it treats users who are in prison. While past policy allowed prison authorities to delete inmates’ accounts effectively at will, the social network now requires them to explain why the prison wants to erase an account.

The change coincides with a new debate over when, or if, prisoners should be allowed to use the internet and social media. Recent news accounts have described how smartphones have become a new form of contraband, and how inmates in some states have been put into solitary confinement for using Facebook (FB).

Facebook’s change in policy, which took place at some point in the spring, came after the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) called attention to a process that allowed prisons to remove accounts simply by submitting a notice. As a result, profiles—and any photos or comments they contained—simply vanished at the whim of prison officials.

The EFF, which has a full account of the changes, commended Facebook for the new procedures, but said the company should start including deleted prisoner accounts in its semi-annual Transparency Report, a document that reports on government censorship.

For prisons and Facebook, the issue remains a complicated one. Inmates have reportedly used social media to intimidate witnesses, and to carry out ongoing criminal ventures. But on the other hand, from a social standpoint, a blanket plan on Facebook might be cruel and counter-productive.

“The Internet and social media are fundamental to the economy these days—everybody uses it,” said Dave Maass of the EFF by phone. He added that social media is now integral to many jobs, meaning that inmates who have no idea how to use them are less likely to integrate into the workplace upon release.

Meanwhile, the issue is still new enough that courts have yet to significantly define whether laws or policies than ban Internet use by prisoner are constitutional. Ironically, the uncertainty comes even though law enforcement has for years used people’s activities on Facebook and other social media platforms as evidence to convict them.

One issue that may remain contentious for Facebook are terms service that let the company delete an account if a user allows a third party to access it. According to Maass, this policy can be unfair to inmates and others, including those with literary issues, who need friends or family to help them online.