Should prisoners be allowed to use Facebook or Twitter or have a MySpace page? One South Carolina state lawmaker says, absolutely not, and he is trying to make it punishable by law if they are caught using social media sites.
“This bill would be the first bill of such in the whole country that would be a crime for any inmate while in prison to set up social media as a means of communications. If a person gets caught, he or she would have a lot of time added to what they’ve been given. It also carries a fine,” said state Rep. Wendell Gilliard, a Democrat from Charleston who is proposing the law.
Inmates are accessing the popular social websites using smartphones smuggled inside prison walls, which is already illegal in South Carolina. But prisoners aren’t just using Facebook to update their status or share interesting videos. Some victims and victims’ families have complained that the inmates are using popular social networking sites to stalk, harass and threaten them.
“Stalkers, batterers, gang members live to intimidate, harass and terrorize their victim, that’s what they do,” says Veronica Swain Kunz, CEO with the South Carolina Victim Assistance Network. “Anybody on Facebook can reach out and send a message to anybody that they want to, and it could be a really terrorizing thing for them.”
The bill to stop social networking for prisoners would add 30 days to a prisoner's sentence and require them to pay a $500 fine if they are caught posting on social networking sites.
“It will send a message to our youth, crime doesn’t pay,” said Gilliard. “We have to get back to reforming people, we have not done that. We have given them an outfit where they feel comfortable.”
And the reach of this proposed law wouldn’t stop at prison walls. Families or friends of prisoners could face misdemeanor charges if they are caught setting up social network pages or posting any messages for prisoners on the Internet. Rep. Gilliard hopes just proposing the bill sends a message across the country.
“It’s just not South Carolina and Northern California, other states have this problem too. Hopefully this will bring it out to the forefront,” he said.
But the proposed bill has already met resistance. The ACLU calls it a violation of the First Amendment right to free speech in the Constitution. Ashleigh Merchant, a criminal defense attorney in Atlanta, agrees saying that any move to restrict free speech in any form for anybody is wrong.
“A lot of times, this is an only outlet for an inmate. If a son or daughter is in prison, their family wants to have an outlet, sort of keep family members up to date on what’s going on with that inmates life – that’s still a member of that family,” she says.
Merchant agrees that inmates should not be using cell phones in prison and says prison officials should spend more energy enforcing the inmate cell phone bans and stalking laws that are already on the books. She says a proposed social networking ban is redundant and unnecessary.
“It’s already illegal to have cell phones in prison – so if they enforce that law and they actually worked a little harder to keep cell phones out of prison, I think that would serve the same goal,” Merchant said. “There has been some talk about threats being made through social media and threats are already illegal, so they have an avenue to enforce that. They don’t need another law to enforce that.”
Rep. Gilliard said the Republican leadership in the South Carolina State House supports his bill and he hopes that it will come up for a vote as early as next week.
Elizabeth Prann currently serves as a Washington-based correspondent for Fox News Channel (FNC). She joined the network in 2006 as a production assistant.