Moral Low Ground


South Carolina Inmate Gets 37 Years in Solitary Confinement for Facebook Posts

(Marcello Ferrada de Noli/Creative Commons)

(Marcello Ferrada de Noli/Creative Commons)

The South Carolina Department of Corrections (SCDC) is punishing inmates with decades of solitary confinement—a recognized form of psychological torture—for Facebook posts.

Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San Francisco-based digital rights group, notes that the southern state’s correctional policy treats prisoner social media use as on par with murder, rape and rioting behind bars.

In 2012, SCDC designated “Creating and/or Assisting With A Social Networking Site” a Level 1 offense, a category which includes the worst offenses prisoners can commit. EFF claims social media use by prisoners is one of the most common Level 1 offenses with which inmates are charged. The use of mobile phones, which prisoners often use to access social media sites, is also a Level 1 offense.

Through a South Carolina Freedom of Information Act request, EFF learned that SCDC officials had brought more than 400 disciplinary cases for “social networking.” Nearly all of the cases involved Facebook use. Punishments are often severe. Prisoners are stripped of nearly all privileges, including visitation and phone calls. But the harshest penalty received by inmates is placement in solitary confinement, often for years—and sometimes decades.

In 16 cases, inmates were sentenced to at least a decade in what officials call “disciplinary detention.” One prisoner was sentenced to 37 years in solitary confinement. This is possible because SCDC issues a separate Level 1 violation for each day that an inmate uses social media. Whereas someone who posts 10 status updates in a day would receive only one violation, an inmate who posts those 10 updates on separate days is on the hook for a decade in solitary.

“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,” notes EFF.

The most severe punishments for social media use discovered by EFF include:

  • In 2013, Tyheem Henry received 13,680 days (37.5 years) in disciplinary detention and lost 27,360 day (74 years) worth of telephone, visitation, and canteen privileges, as well as 69 days of good time, for 38 Facebook posts.
  • Last year, Walter Brown received 12,600 days (34.5 years) in disciplinary detention and lost 25,200 days (69 years) in telephone, visitation, and canteen privileges, as well as 875 days (2.4 years) of good time, for 35 Facebook posts.
  • Also last year, Jonathan McClain received 9,000 days (24.6 years) in disciplinary detention and lost 18,000 days (49 years) in telephone, visitation, and canteen privileges, and 30 days of good time, for 25 Facebook posts.

According to EFF, Facebook has cooperated with SCDC officials seeking to block inmates from accessing the site. The social media giant has suspended prisoners’ accounts for violating terms of service that prohibit third-party account access, a common method for incarcerated individuals to maintain their social media presence. But SCDC has also violated this policy by accessing inmates’ accounts after learning their passwords.

Not all prisoner electronic communications are benign, SCDC officials say, noting how some inmates use technology to arrange the smuggling of contraband, harass and intimidate people outside of prison and even plan and commit serious crimes.

“We have to look no further than our own South Carolina corrections officer, Captain [Robert] Johnson, who was shot six times in his home due to an attempted contract killing via a contraband cellphone,” Corrections Director Bryan Stirling told the Charleston Post and Courier. “We take the use of contraband cellphones and social media by inmates very seriously, and the punishments for using them are severe. We are no different from any other corrections department across the country dealing with this issue.”

But opponents of solitary confinement argue that it is a horrific form of punishment, and a recognized form of psychological torture. The US military studied scores of former POWs from the Vietnam War and concluded that solitary confinement was as excruciating as any physical torture the men had endured. Among Guantánamo detainees, extended periods of isolation sometimes led to serious mental illness, even insanity.

“It’s an awful thing, solitary,” Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), who spent two of his five years as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam in isolation, once said. “It crushes your spirit and weakens your resistance more effectively than any other form of mistreatment.” McCain was no stranger to “other forms of mistreatment,” having been severely tortured by his captors.

Anthony Graves spent 18 years locked up in Texas prisons, 12 of those years on death row, for murders he did not commit. He was exonerated and freed in 2010 and testified at a 2012 US Senate hearing about the horrific effects of solitary confinement, in which he was held for most of his time behind bars.

“No one can begin to imagine the effect isolation has on a human being” Graves said, unless they have experienced it themselves. He recounted how he mutilated and tried to kill himself to end the agony. Solitary confinement “breaks a man’s will to live,” he testified. To those who doubt how horrible it is, “I say, go live there for 30 days, and then tell me that,” he said.

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