Texas is banning inmates from having any kind of social media accounts—including accounts run in their name by friends or family members.
A new rule prohibiting all inmates from "maintaining active social media accounts for the purposes of soliciting, updating, or engaging others" was included in the latest version of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice's offender handbook, which was updated April 1.
Texas officials say the new measure is necessary because some inmates misuse social media. "Offenders have used social media accounts to sell items over the internet based on the notoriety of their crime, harass victims or victim’s families, and continue their criminal activity," spokesperson Jason Clark said in an email. "The agency will take all of the necessary steps to prevent that from happening."
Clark said that the department will reach out to social media companies to ask that accounts in inmates' names be taken down, and that the new rule will strengthen their ability to do so. Inmates who are found to have social media accounts would be punished with a level three disciplinary violation, the lowest level violation in the system.
For many inmates, social media pages can be lifelines to the outside world. Prisoners write posts, send them to a friend or family member through snail mail, and ask the friend post them on Facebook. (Texas inmates have no internet access.) Some pages are diaries about their days behind bars, others serialize autobiographies, and others write poetry or fiction.
"These pages are beyond important because this is how the average joe finds out about the humanity of the people on death row," said Pat Hartwell, an anti-death penalty activist in Houston who updates a Facebook page for death row inmate Charles Flores.
Hartwell said that death row inmates were told that the new policy will start being enforced tomorrow. She took down Flores' page yesterday to avoid getting him in trouble, and several other family members and activists also posted on Facebook that they were taking down pages for inmates.
The rule could run up against First Amendment issues. Dave Maass, a researcher with the Electronic Frontier Foundation who has studied inmate social media regulations, said he thought the rule was unconstitutionally broad.
"This policy violates the free speech rights of both the inmates and the family members and friends of inmates," Maass said. "I don't think it's appropriate for a prison to tell someone on the outside what they can and can't post when it doesn't involve criminal activity."
A Facebook spokesperson declined to comment on the rule.
Texas isn't the first state to punish inmates for using social media. In South Carolina, inmates who are caught using Facebook are punished with solitary confinement. In Maine, inmates aren't allowed to publish a blog or any other kind of writing online.
Casey Tolan is a National News Reporter for Fusion based in New York City.