Inmates are on Facebook.
I gave you a moment there to just let that sink in, because in this country we are so accustomed to being harsh and punitive that it’s difficult to imagine inmates doing anything normal. A lot of people don’t even want prisoners to have access to something as benign as television, much less Facebook.
Without a doubt, inmate activity on social networking sites is something to be aware of, and even concerned about. But I don’t think it’s something to panic about. I don’t even think these activities should be outright banned. Don’t worry, there is a comment feature at the bottom of this post if you’d like to tell me how wrong I am. At least consider reading the rest of the post first?
As much as it’s difficult to support inmate rights, I think there are two critical issues here. The first is free speech. I know, I don’t want to hear a lot of what they have to say either. But without free speech, inmates lose their ability to advocate for reforms in the correctional system and to bring abuses to light. Although the recent decision to overturn a Louisiana statute banning sex offenders from social media was focused on post-release offenders, much of the reasoning is similar.
The second issue is offender well-being. (Ouch! I heard that! No yelling in my ear!) Offenders, inmates, convicts – criminals by any other name – are still human beings. As a society, we do have a basic commitment of equality, fairness, and humane treatment for all human beings. Even those who have caused grievous harms.
Most of those offenders who are locked up will one day leave their institutions. The more we are cruel to them, the more we refuse them access to the most basic features of our society, the more we impede their ability to connect in positive ways with other human beings, the more we put ourselves at greater risk. The prisoner who has lost the ability to fit into society is also the prisoner who will reoffend, causing more victimization, more destruction, more hurt.
And if you are there thinking, “Oh yeah? What about the those inmates who are never getting out? Or on death row?” Yes, I think they should have social media too. If you can’t get behind the other reasons I’ve already given in terms of free speech and offender well-being, how about this one: correctional officer well-being. Happier inmates are less violent in prison. They are less likely to riot, less likely to attack their keepers.
Now, I’m not saying that inmates should have unfettered access, or that there shouldn’t be some reasonable restrictions and monitoring, much like we currently do with snail mail communications. I’m just saying, I don’t think we should make it a crime. We can stop the panic, and reasonably think through how to do it safely so that we don’t endanger victims, whether past or potential. We can figure out the role that social media can play in the conflicting goals of punishment and rehabilitation. We can be sensible.
I’m not panicking.