In A Nutshell
In 2014, a researcher for the Electronic Frontier Foundation discovered that the South Carolina Department of Corrections was punishing inmates for using social media as harshly as if they had murdered, raped, or taken someone hostage. In one of the most draconian cases, Tyheem Henry received a sentence of almost 38 years in solitary confinement for posting on Facebook for 38 days. Inmates are often prohibited from using social media to ensure that they don’t engage in witness intimidation, contraband drops, or other illegal activity. However, even in South Carolina, the misuse of solitary confinement for these infractions may be changing.
The Whole Bushel
In 2014, a researcher for the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) discovered that the South Carolina Department of Corrections was punishing inmates for using social media as harshly as if they had murdered, raped, or taken someone hostage. Almost 400 inmates in the last three years have received punishments ranging from loss of visitation rights and telephone access to solitary confinement. Research has shown that solitary confinement for more than a very short time can cause mental problems or make existing mental illness worse. In some cases, prisoners are more likely to commit other crimes, especially violent ones.
Sometimes, inmates are simply trying to keep in touch with their families or stay on top of current events. But inmates are often prohibited from using social media to ensure that they don’t engage in witness intimidation, contraband drops, or other illegal activity. If prison officials find that an inmate has visited a social media site, they believe the inmate has been using a contraband cell phone. Otherwise, he or she probably wouldn’t have direct access to the Internet.
“Any hole in the system—and social media is a hole into the system—is a way for them to continue their criminal ways,” said South Carolina Department Director Bryan P. Stirling. “There needs to be a punishment that’s worse than, ‘No candy for you today,’ or, ‘You won’t see your mother.’ There has to be something more severe than that.”
In some cases, South Carolina prisoners have received solitary confinement sentences that are longer than the sentences they received for the crimes that sent them to prison. For example, Tyheem Henry received a sentence of almost 38 years in solitary confinement for posting on Facebook for 38 days. He also lost 74 years of visitation rights and telephone access. However, Mr. Henry won’t have to serve 38 years in solitary because he was sent to prison for only 5–10 years. On average, though, South Carolina gives inmates 512 days in solitary confinement if they’re caught on social media websites.
According to the EFF, that’s harsh even by prison standards, although South Carolina isn’t the only state that has allegedly misused solitary confinement. California has been sued for imposing solitary confinement sentences for as long as 10–28 years. New Mexico spent $15.5 million to settle the case of a man accused of drunk driving who was thrown into solitary for 22 months while awaiting trial. His case was never prosecuted.
In the South Carolina cases of inmates posting on social media, the punishments are especially harsh because they’re considered to be Level 1 offenses, which are the most violent transgressions of the prison code of conduct. That makes posting on social media similar to murdering, raping, or taking someone hostage. Inmates receive a separate Level 1 violation for each day they access social media. So inmates who post one update on Facebook for each of 10 days receive 10 Level 1 violations, but inmates who post 50 updates all in one day receive just one Level 1 violation.
The EFF uses this example to demonstrate the severity of this policy: “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 some states, inmates may be punished if someone else, even a family member, accesses social media on their behalf. Depending on the state, the go-between may also be prosecuted.
However, even in South Carolina, the misuse of solitary confinement may be changing. Recently, Mr. Stirling revised South Carolina’s disciplinary policy to reduce the maximum amount of time spent in solitary confinement to 60 day for each infraction or related group of infractions.
Show Me The Proof
Electronic Frontier Foundation: Hundreds of South Carolina Inmates Sent to Solitary Confinement Over Facebook
Gawker: South Carolina Inmates Get Solitary Confinement for Using Facebook
NY Times: The Shame of Solitary Confinement