New Mexico prison officials are enforcing a rule that prohibits prisoners from maintaining online profiles, such as social media pages or web-based pen pal ads, including through third parties. Prisoners who violate the rule are subject to discipline.
“Inmates can correspond legally through mail and phone calls,” said Joe Booker, Deputy Secretary of Operations for the New Mexico Corrections Department (NMCD). “But we don’t know who’s out there on the Web.” So prison officials have implemented a policy to restrict prisoners from communicating with “who’s out there” online – even when they don’t have direct access to the Internet themselves.
Booker claimed the policy, CD-044005-M, is necessary to address public safety concerns. Web postings may be used, he said, to send messages or introduce contraband such as drugs and escape devices into the prison system. He offered no evidence, however, that anyone has done so, in New Mexico or elsewhere.
“I think this is a kneejerk reaction,” countered Adam Lovell, president and owner of Florida-based WriteAPrisoner.com, a pen pal service that advertises in PLN. “Most inmates lose all contact with the outside world within a few years in prison. This just allows inmates to connect with people who want to correspond with them.”
Lovell believes the NMCD’s rationale for the policy is specious, noting that his website, like dozens of others, is not a social media site but rather a platform for online pen pal ads. Such sites do not allow prisoners to communicate via the Internet; they simply host photos and descriptions of prisoners and where they are incarcerated.
Anyone who wants to communicate with a prisoner must respond to their pen pal ad by corresponding through the U.S. postal service – and of course prison staff can monitor all incoming and outgoing prisoner mail.
Regardless, NMCD officials have enforced the policy with earnest. According to a July 15, 2014 article published by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), New Mexico prisoner Eric Aldaz faced up to 90 days in solitary confinement for having a Facebook account that was updated by his family members. The NMCD policy prohibits prisoners from accessing such sites through “third parties,” and Aldaz had told his family to continue updating his Facebook page after he was ordered to take it down.
Once EFF intervened, making inquiries to prison officials and filing public records requests, the NMCD agreed to review Aldaz’s disciplinary case. EFF, the ACLU of New Mexico and the Human Rights Defense Center, PLN’s parent organization, sent a letter to the NMCD’s general counsel on July 11, 2014, asking the department to repeal policy CD-044005-M because it was unconstitutionally vague and noting, “No one should serve 90 days, or even a single day, in solitary confinement for simply having a Facebook page.”
According to NMCD public affairs director Alexandria Tomlin, Aldaz’s Facebook-related disciplinary charge was subsequently dismissed.
The policy, however, remains in effect. A March 13, 2015 news report indicated that two New Mexico prisoners, Joseph Cruz and Michael Salazar, were investigated for posting content on their Facebook pages or having their family members or friends do so for them.
Albuquerque attorney Matthew Coyte noted that prisoners should not be disciplined for what their families do, with or without their consent. “This happens in jails and prisons, you get to control people through controlling their families, and that’s not acceptable,” he stated. “There’s always a balance you have in a prison or a jail to keep security versus trampling people’s rights.”
In an August 17, 2015 email to PLN, Tomlin explained that “if an inmate has a social media page we discuss it with that inmate, if they claim they don’t know who put it up, we advise them that we will contact the agency to have it taken down and that if they find out who put it up please advise that person, if possible, that they cannot have a page.”
She continued, “If the inmate does disclose that they know who put it up and have played a role in what was posted, we have the inmate make a call to that person to have it taken down. If there is a case where an inmate has had a page removed previously and continues to have it reinstated, continues to write letters or talk to friends or family about what to post, tries to reach out to victims, tries to scam someone using the page, etc., then we may take disciplinary action.”
A number of other state prison systems have similar policies that prohibit prisoners from maintaining social media accounts and accessing online content, including the South Carolina DOC, which has disciplined hundreds of prisoners for having Facebook pages. [See: PLN, Oct. 2015, p.23].
Sources: Associated Press, www.eff.org, www.krqe.com
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