South Carolina lawmakers are currently considering whether or not people in prison should have restrictions put on their virtual lives. In response to the news that convicts are updating their Facebook pages on cell phones smuggled into prison, State Rep. Wendell Gilliard has proposed a bill that would fine prisoners $500 and add 30 days to their sentence if they're caught accessing social networking sites on a cell phone. The Associated Press reports that the bill would also make it illegal for anyone to set up a page for a prisoner.
Correctional officers in California confiscated nearly 11,000 cell phones from prisoners last year, and several states including South Carolina are working on systems that block illegal cell phone signals. But as things stand authorities are having difficulty identifying convicts on Facebook, with the exception of inmates like Islam Dunn, who wrote, "its really hard 2 find luv n jail.lol." on his wall.
Rep. Gilliard says he proposed the law because inmates aren't just poking loved ones, they're also continuing to harass their victims. "We now know that the criminals behind bars are using this as a method of intimidation. People's lives are threatened. They're sending out coded messages through social networking," Gilliard said. "How can we as a society stand by and do nothing?"
The American Civil Liberties Union successfully fought a similar Arizona law in 2003, and says the South Carolina law violates the First Amendment. David Fathi, director of the ACLU's National Prison Project, said that inmates shouldn't be allowed to have cell phones, but if they do obtain an illegal device, they should be able to do what they want online. He explained:
"There is no First Amendment objection to prison officials saying prisoners can't have cell phones, and doing the appropriate searches to make sure that rule is followed ... But that's completely different than something like this bill that tries to regulate prisoners' speech in the outside world."
He added, "The response to seeing something that you don't like on the Internet is, don't look at it." But if someone who committed a crime against your family is using a cell phone to harass you online or organize more attacks against you, that's pretty hard to ignore.
Whether you think this is a First Amendment violation or not, the bigger issue is that thousands of illegal cell phones in our prisons. South Carolina can pass a law to give incarcerated Facebook users what's essentially a slap on the wrist, but if authorities can't find an object with a signal beaming out it, it seems unlikely that they'll notice a convict's status update online.