Texas Wants to Restrict Social Media for Inmates and Their Families

Is this new rule impinging on free speech?

By Alain StephensMay 3, 2016 11:59 am|

Texas led the country in exonerations last year, with 54 statewide. in the state. New York placed a distant second with only 17, according to the National Registry of Exonerations’ latest report.

One factor helping to shine a spotlight on some of these cases is social media – with hashtags and Facebook posts bringing attention to some of these cases that would otherwise be forgotten. Now a new rule codified by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice not only prohibits prisoners from having any access to social media, but also forbids their family, loved ones, or advocates on the outside from maintaining social media accounts on their behalf. It’s a measure that some say goes too far in censoring inmates.

Jordan Smith from the Intercept has been following the story. She says the new rule appeared seemingly without being vetted by the TDCJ board, or being brought to anyone else’s attention. The new guidelines showed up in between rules that require prisoners to be polite and one that forbids roughhousing or similar activities. The new rule applies only to social media – not websites or blogs.

“That’s key,” Smith says. “Texas prisoners do not have direct access to the Internet. So, by definition, (social media has) to be maintained by people on the outside and those people, also by definition, are not under the supervision by TDCJ.”

Under free speech rights, the department has no control over the behavior of people outside of prison facilities, Smith says. But TDCJ says this rule is allowable because Facebook has rules against third-party access. That’s not exactly true, Smith says, so it’s hard to see how a court of law would think that’s a reasonable conclusion.

Often, advocates and groups opposed to the death penalty use Facebook or Twitter to bring awareness to inmates’ stories and potential innocence. This is where the TDCJ wants to intervene.

“It would force them to take down the sites that they think are critical to maintaining awareness, particularly with wrongful convictions,” Smith says. “To me it really seems like a solution in search of a problem.”

It’s unclear why TDCJ is so concerned about social media linked to inmates, Smith says. The TDCJ says there are certain instances where prisoners have been violating rules against Internet use, like intimidating witnesses or trying to sell “murderabilia” – items used in violent criminal cases.

But there are already rules in place that deal with these transgressions. So why the need for the new one?

“This blanket rule is considered unconstitutional,” Smith says. “It seems like a pretty unnecessary and arbitrary rule.”