How Facebook became a pawn for the American prison system

To anyone closely examining the growth of the prison-industrial complex in recent years, it’s hardly surprising to learn of another private company colluding with prison officials. But the most recent a little more perplexing to me than most, especially since the company involved has a CEO who has proclaimed that “connectivity is a human right” while simultaneously taking that right away from a marginalized population.  That CEO was Mark Zuckerberg, and it’s been revealed that until recently (as in the last few weeks), Facebook has been at the virtual beck and call of prison officials.

There is no question that the advent of social media presents serious challenges to prison officials seeking to strike the balance between public safety and prisoners’ rights and rehabilitation. But across the country, a number of state prisons have been requesting that Facebook remove all manner of active Facebook accounts belonging to inmates—and administrators for the social media giant have complied without question.The logic of simply closing an individual’s account based on the fact that they happen to be in prison, is seriously flawed at best. After all, many people had the accounts prior to incarceration and there is nothing in the terms and conditions entered into upon opening an account that indicates that imprisonment is grounds for account closure. Nevertheless, The Daily Beast has revealed that that’s precisely what the social media giant has been doing for several years.

Such actions seriously overstep the boundaries of prison officials. The fact that a prisoner may have an active account has nothing to do with Facebook itself, and everything to do with dealing with the root issue: determining how they accessed it. And as such, prison officials have absolutely no right to ask that a private company remove profiles based simply only on the fact that they exist. If it’s a matter of them having contraband cellphones, well that’s an issue to be dealt with appropriately. But prison officials have been skipping that step altogether and requesting—without any legal basis—immediate removal of said accounts. Clearly, in cases where use of an account may contribute to criminal behaviours or is being used in a manner that contravenes prison guidelines or violates the terms of their incarceration, then certainly officials are within their rights to request assistance from the company in question. That does not, however, appear to have been an issue in more than a couple of cases.

There now exist “Social media investigators” contracted by prisons and tasked with tracking inmate activities on a variety of networks, costing the system thousands of dollars to track down a single offender. It’s also worth mentioning that in their zealousness, prison officials have themselves created false accounts, violating Facebook’s Terms of Service. Some states have gone so far as to enact draconian laws to deal with the evolving legal territory of social media. For example, the case pointed to where an individual was handed down a punishment of 37 years in isolation in South Carolina through the creation of a new social media law. These laws frequently overstep the bounds of dealing with contraband, prohibiting inmates from even asking family or friends to post information on their law on their behalf. Facebook justified shutting down some of these accounts based on them having been accessed by someone other than the account holder. Yet there are no rampant shutdowns of the accounts of the dead or ill, whose family or friends have been granted to permission to provide information through said account? Indeed, some people are included such permissions in their wills in an effort to cover all their digital bases. Will Facebook treat those situations as breaches of their ToS as well?

But putting aside the issue of prison regulations and contraband, it’s worth taking this further and asking why they’re accessing these accounts? Is it because they’re desperate for connections with the loved ones? I’d be willing to bet that by and large, that’s why most are doing it (and of course, as the lead article discusses, there are exceptions to this).

Likely in response to intense public outcry and concern for digital rights and censorship, Facebook has changed their tune somewhat. Instead of simply responding with an “okay, sure” to prison requests for account removals, officials will now have to complete an “Inmate Account Takedown Request” form, which requires a detailed explanation of the specific ToS and/or applicable laws being violated, and how precisely user access constitutes a threat to public safety.

While these changes angered some prison officials, arguably it did so only because the grounds for removal of the accounts they’re interested in are not sufficient enough to warrant action. And if that’s the case, what we should really be concerned about his how and why so much of the arguably scarce resources available to prisons are being wasted hunting down innocuous usage.

It is not as though the monitoring of social media accounts is a difficult account. Indeed, as nearly everyone will tell you, privacy is not easily kept in that world. So it would hardly be a major challenge for prisons to allow limited access to social media through internal systems. By prison officials’ own admission, they monitor all other types of communications to ensure public safety, so how would this be any different? 

Prisons in the digital age are new territory for everyone, but at the moment prison officials are demonstrating a tremendous amount of ignorance with regards to the rights of both prisoners and the public, as writer Cory Doctorow so aptly points out, “It just isn’t how it works in the U.S.: when police catch someone stealing a computer or phone, the police do not get to go around demanding websites erase everything the person said on the Internet using that device.”