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Civil Rights Groups Decry Effort to Punish US Federal Inmates for Social Media Use


WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A proposed change to U.S. federal prison rules that would punish inmates for using social media or directing others to do so on their behalf could infringe on the free speech rights of people who advocate for incarcerated people, activists say.

Civil liberties advocates are facing a Monday deadline to push the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) to back away from the proposed change, included in a planned overhaul of its disciplinary rules for the more than 155,000 inmates in its custody.

Federal inmates are already banned from using cell phones and are restricted from accessing the Internet.

While a separate part of the BOP’s plan would also make it an infraction to use social media to commit a crime, the bureau does not explain why it wants to punish inmates over the use of social media more broadly.

“This would not only restrict the First Amendment rights of people in prisons, but I think it really would also seem to be an overreach by restricting the First Amendment rights of people who are not even in BOP custody,” said Shanna Rifkin, the deputy general counsel for the non-profit inmates rights advocacy group FAMM.

BOP spokeswoman Kristie Breshears said the measure is merely a proposal and no change is imminent. The final policy could change depending on public input, she added.

Ebony Underwood, whose nonprofit, We Got Us Now, works with the children of incarcerated parents called the social media proposal “archaic and so inhumane.”

“Social media has been an avenue for so many young people in my community to be able to advocate for our parents,” she added.

Black Americans have historically born the brunt of the nation’s mass incarceration policies. Currently, almost 39% of the BOP’s prison population is Black, even though Black people accounted for 15% of the U.S. population in 2022.

Advocacy organizations and family members often use social media to help inmates garner support for clemency or compassionate release.

“Storytelling and advocacy and social media have been key components to bringing people home,” said Amy Ralston Povah, whose nonprofit CAN-DO Foundation helps inmates advocate for clemency.

Social media is also used to blow the whistle about poor living conditions, civil rights violations and abuse inside prisons.

The BOP uses a tiered system of discipline, with infractions ranked by severity level: Greatest, high, moderate and low.

As proposed, the use of social media would be categorized as “high,” placing it on par with infractions such as extortion, fighting and damaging property.

Criminal justice advocates worry the proposal could scare people away from making any posts about an inmate for fear it could lead to a serious punishment such as solitary confinement or a lengthier prison term through the deduction of good time credits.

Charles Weisselberg, a law professor at the University of California Berkeley, said any information advocates or their loved ones might use online about inmates and their condition would already be sent through channels monitored by the BOP.

“I don’t understand their interest in preventing the further dissemination of something they have already looked at,” he said.

(Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch; Editing by Andy Sullivan and Bill Berkrot)

Copyright 2024 Thomson Reuters.



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