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Facebook Lands Prison Guards, Prisoners in Hot Water

by Mike Rigby

One downside of the information age is that both prison guards and prisoners have found themselves in trouble due to their accounts on Facebook, the Internet’s premier social networking site.

Three Nebraska prison guards were fired in March 2010 due to a Facebook post in which they gloated about abusing prisoners. [See: PLN, May 2010, p.50].

“When you work in a prison a good day is getting to smash an inmate’s face into the ground .... for me today was a VERY good day,” Nebraska Dept. of Corrections guard Caleb Bartels stated on his Facebook page. Two other prison guards, Shawn Paulson and Derek Dickey, posted responses supporting his comment. Dickey wrote, “very satisfying isn’t it!!!”

Prison officials confirmed that staff had used force against a prisoner at the Nebraska State Penitentiary on February 8, 2010, the date of Bartel’s Facebook post.

In a letter to Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning, former State Senator Ernie Chambers said the “reprehensible misconduct” bragged about by the guards on Facebook made them unfit to serve. “Given the nature of their work and the power they exercise over inmates, they have shown themselves to lack fitness to hold employment,” Chambers wrote.

“The Department of Correctional Services takes this matter very seriously,” stated DOC director Robert Houston. “Inappropriate actions by our staff or statements which could lead to dangerous situations in our prison system are not tolerated.”

The three former prison guards, while fired, did not face criminal charges.

In Rhode Island, state prison guard Matthew Lacroix, 27, was arrested in December 2010 for creating a fake Facebook page in which he reportedly pretended to be Rhode Island DOC director Ashbel T. Wall. He was suspended with pay, later pleaded guilty to a charge of “use of fraudulent information,” and was fined $500. [See: PLN, Jan. 2011, p.50].

Also, a guard at Ohio’s Cuyahoga Hills Juvenile Correctional Facility, Matthew Azzano, 33, was fired in August 2010 for posting racial slurs and potentially threatening remarks on his Facebook page. The posts were reportedly aimed at his co-workers and juvenile offenders at the facility.

“He admitted to posting threatening and racially-motivated comments regarding youth and staff at the Department of Youth Services on Facebook,” said Ohio Dept. of Youth Services spokesperson Kimberlee Parsell. “I think it’s important to note the DYS has zero tolerance for racial harassment and intimidation.”

Facebook posts have landed other law enforcement officials in trouble, too. Washington State Patrol cadet Math Blahut was asked to resign in January 2009 after he posted pictures of himself in uniform, drinking out of a pitcher of beer and waiting for a ride after partying all night. He was accused of casting the state police in a bad light. And Massachusetts Sex Offender Registry Board hearing examiner Tyson Lynch faced media scrutiny in May 2009 after posting questionable comments on his Facebook page about the sex offenders he assessed, calling them “pervs.” [See: PLN, Feb. 2010, p.33].

Prisoners have also been busted for using Facebook – which they typically access with contraband cell phones that have Internet plans.

In November 2010, Oklahoma prisoner Justin Walker used a cell phone to post several photos on his Facebook account. Prison officials were tipped off and viewed Walker’s Facebook page, which included pictures of drugs, weapons and alcohol in his cell. A shakedown soon followed, Walker’s phone was confiscated and he was placed in segregation. Among the pictures Walker posted on his Facebook page were some of himself smoking marijuana from a giant bong and displaying knives and white supremacist tattoos. [See: PLN, Feb. 2011, p.40].

The South Carolina news media profiled the problem of state prisoners accessing Facebook in January 2011, describing several cases where prisoners had set up Facebook accounts. One such prisoner, Quincy Howard, serving a 30-year sentence, had more than 100 Facebook friends. After being alerted of Howard’s online activity, prison officials seized his contraband cell phone and filed disciplinary charges against him.

South Carolina lawmakers are currently considering a bill that would impose penalties on prisoners who use social networking sites. “We now know that the criminals behind bars are using this [Facebook] as a method of intimidation. People’s lives are threatened. They’re sending out coded messages through social networking,” claimed South Carolina State Rep. Wendell Gilliard.

Gilliard’s proposed legislation, H. 3527, would extend prisoners’ sentences for 30 days and/or fine them $500 if they join social networking sites such as Facebook; the bill imposes similar sanctions on people who set up social networking accounts on behalf of prisoners, which would be a misdemeanor offense.

The ACLU opposes the legislation. “Efforts of this kind are just an attempt to beat up on prisoners because we don’t like them,” said ACLU National Prison Project director David Fathi, who differentiated the use of illegal contraband cell phones from prisoners’ free speech rights.

“The First Amendment protects speech, even if it’s speech that some people don’t want to see,” he said. “The response to seeing something that you don’t like on the Internet is, don’t look at it.”

Sources: www.allfacebook.com, TIME, www.newser.com, www.cleveland.com, www.thesunnews.com