South Carolina bill targets prisoners on Facebook

The Associated Press
Sunday, March 20, 2011; 11:42 PM

COLUMBIA, S.C. -- Islam Dunn updates his Facebook page with a phone like so many other 19-year-olds, only he must hide the device so the prison guards don't notice.

The proliferation of cell phones smuggled into prisons has some inmates routinely updating their status from the inside, and South Carolina is considering becoming the first state to make that a crime.

The measure would add 30 days to a prisoner's sentence if he is caught interacting on social networking sites via cell phone. The bill goes a step further, too, making it illegal for anyone to set up a page for a prisoner, which legal experts say violates inmates' free speech rights even if they are using contraband cell phones.

Rep. Wendell Gilliard, a Democrat from Charleston who proposed the law, said crime victims shouldn't have to worry about seeing or being threatened by a prisoner online. There's also a fear convicts are coordinating criminal activity.

"We now know that the criminals behind bars are using this as a method of intimidation. People's lives are threatened. They're sending out coded messages through social networking," Gilliard said. "How can we as a society stand by and do nothing?"

Tarangie Tyler's family was terrorized nearly two years ago by Dunn and a group of men who were trying to rob their home. Her 34-year-old husband, Jerry, was shot to death in the attack after four men, including Dunn, kicked in the door of their home.

Tyler moved her five children to a safer neighborhood, but now fears they could be intimidated by simply logging on to the computer that sits on their kitchen counter.

"To hear that one of them has a Facebook, it's scary," said Tyler, 35. "I don't think they should have Facebook, because of the crime that they did. ... If they want to communicate, that's what a pencil and paper are for."

Prisoners are free to exchange letters with people on the outside, but their mail is monitored. Inmates in federal prison and a handful of other jurisdictions also have limited access to e-mail, and typically can only send it to people who have previously agreed to it.

Yet smart phones provide easy access to social networking sites, and it's difficult for corrections officials to keep up. Some inmate pages are obvious, with photos of themselves in prison. Others are set up and run by relatives or friends.

Facebook already prohibits third-party profiles and takes them down when they find out. The company also deactivates prisoner pages when they become aware of them, regardless of who set up the pages.

In Oklahoma, a man serving 30 years for the murder of a sheriff was moved to solitary confinement after he used a smuggled cell phone to post pictures and comments on Facebook.

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