By Madlin Mekelburg
Texas prison inmates shouldn't be allowed to have active social media accounts, even if friends or family on the outside actually run them, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice has decided.
Earlier this month, the department updated its criminal handbook to prohibit prisoners from having personal pages on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram run in their name by others. When pages violating the policy are discovered, the department plans to report the violations to the appropriate social network.
"What really prompted the rule was that social media companies now require some sort of specific rule in place that's going to prohibit offenders from maintaining their social media accounts," said department spokesman Jason Clark. "I can tell you increasingly it has become more difficult to ask those companies to take it down. They would come back to us and say, 'You don't have a specific policy that says they can't have it.'"
But the new rule is eliciting free-speech concerns from civil liberties groups and raising questions about how friends or family can advocate for inmates.
"I think that while TDCJ may have sincere goals in trying to implement this new policy, it raises very serious concerns about the stifling of free speech and frankly probably reaches far beyond, in terms of its impact," said. Wayne Krause Yang, legal director for the Texas Civil Rights Project. "We don't know whether TDCJ is going to attempt to exercise, and has the power to enforce, this policy and against whom. If and when it does, it could present some very serious concerns."
A Facebook representative declined to comment on TDCJ's new prohibition but pointed to the company's policy for removing prisoner accounts when there is "a genuine risk of physical harm." The representative said this risk is demonstrated "by legal authority banning access to social media or by evidence that an inmate’s access to our service poses a real-world security risk."
Facebook has a form on its website to submit requests for inmate accounts to be removed.
No specific inmate prompted the new policy, Clark said, but he pointed out that the department recently learned convicted Houston serial killer Elmer Wayne Henley was selling trinkets from prison through a Facebook account operated by another individual.
Clark said analysts with the Office of Inspector General may search for prohibited accounts, but the ban will primarily be enforced when officers within TDCJ catch wind of violations or when victims and their families report them. When an account violating the policy is discovered, Clark said the department will request the network remove it.
If the department finds evidence that an inmate “initiated someone to start and maintain the page,” he said, they could be subject to disciplinary action for a “rule violation” — the lowest-level violation.
While the measure is aimed at accounts tied specifically to Texas inmates, Krause Yang said the prison system's reach exceeds its legal grasp.
"Typically, prisons control the things inside the prisons. they don't traditionally get to pass prison policies that extend far beyond the bars, and it seems like that's what they're trying to do here," he said. "Those types of policies have a name – they're called laws. They should be considered by the representatives of the people, too, because this policy doesn't just affect the people behind the bars."
State Rep. Joe Moody, vice chair of the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee, said the legislature "deserves an opportunity to weigh in on things like this."
"It's not a small policy change," the El Paso Democrat said. "It’s been a practice for a long time of inmates writing stuff to folks on the outside to post it on social media sites, and that’s been a problem. That’s definitely something that can be addressed legislatively.”
While he acknowledged the policy could limit inmates’ abilities to express themselves, Moody said it addresses just “one mechanism” inmates use to communicate with the outside world.
“There are other avenues that individuals who are incarcerated are able to raise awareness about their case,” Moody said, pointing to websites and organizations that share things online on behalf of incarcerated individuals. “This is specifically saying you can’t have a person running a social media site in the name of someone who is an inmate.”
Gov. Greg Abbott's office declined a request for comment.
Uncertain about the policy's impact, Julie Strickland, a grant writer living in Florida who runs two social media sites for a death row inmate, said she has contacted an attorney for advice on handling her Facebook and Twitter accounts.
Strickland is trying to help free Rodney Reed, convicted of killing a woman during an aggravated sexual assault. Her sites are not run on Reed’s behalf, but they include a community Facebook page titled, “Rodney Reed: Innocent on Texas Death Row" and a connected Twitter account.
Strickland said she thinks the policy is “complete bullshit.”
“It sounds to me like the only reason they’re implementing this is because their actions in the prison, which they like to keep very private, are just becoming way too public, and they don’t like that,” she said.