How Prisons Kick Inmates Off Facebook

And how Facebook helps.

Prison inmates play chess at a California-operated fire camp in December 2014. (Lucy Nicholson / Reuters)

It takes a little bit of work to get off Facebook. To suspend your profile, you have to walk through some settings pages and submit a form explaining why you’re de-activating. And if you want to permanently delete a profile, you have to submit a different form, then wait several days.

But for at least four years, the Facebook accounts of incarcerated Americans had a fast track to suspension.

Since at least 2011, prison officials who wanted to suspend an inmate’s profile could submit a request to Facebook through its “Inmate Account Takedown Request” page. The company would then suspend the account—immediately, often with “no questions asked,” reports Dave Maass, an investigative researcher at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), who first wrote about the page.

This relationship could get cozier than a web form, too. In an email correspondence first published by the EFF, a California corrections officer asked a Facebook employee to “please remove these [attached] profiles” of currently incarcerated inmates.

“Thank you for providing me with this information. I apologize for the delay in getting these profiles taken down,” a Facebook employee replied. “I have located and removed all five accounts from the site. I apologize again!”

This fast-and-loose suspension regime has now changed. Or, at least it appears that way: Last week, Facebook announced measures that will create a higher threshold for removing inmates’ accounts. The company now requests much more information from corrections officers about an inmate’s account, and it also requires officers to demonstrate that inmates have violated law or prison policy in the first place. This was never something it asked about in its previous form.

This is a big change. As Maass points out, suspending an inmate’s account is a kind of state censorship: A government agency asks Facebook, “hey, can you make this speech go away?” and Facebook says “sure,” without seeing if the inmate was threatening someone or otherwise violating its terms of service. A Facebook spokesman said questions about its role in what critics say is censorship would be better posed to lawmakers.

Facebook provides data about censorship requests (it calls them “content restriction requests”) for many countries, including Brazil, Germany, and the United Kingdom. But while it provides some information about U.S. national security requests, it does not disclose how many American “content restriction requests” it receives. A Facebook spokesman declined to provide statistics about how many profiles were suspended to The Atlantic. So we’re left with estimates: The EFF found that in two states alone (California and South Carolina) the combined number of suspended accounts exceeded 700.

This change doesn’t mean either that inmates can now have a Facebook profile in every state. Louisiana, for instance, prohibits prisoners from maintaining an account, and Alabama forbids inmates specifically from having a profile operated by a proxy user (like a friend or family member).

States can be harsh with their punishments. South Carolina treats “one day of operating a Facebook account” as a “level-one offense,” a crime on par with murdering or raping a fellow inmate. That’s how a South Carolinian prisoner—who used a Facebook account for 37 days—was sentenced to 37 years of solitary confinement earlier this year. It’s unclear whether he will serve out the term.

Facebook, of course, is not the only website that American inmates use. (Earlier this year, a Fusion investigation into technology and prisons discovered an anonymous inmate’s Vine account, evidently operated from a contraband smartphone. The account has now been removed.) But Maass said Facebook is the website that correction officers fixate on.

“Of the hundreds of cases I’ve reviewed, all but three involved Facebook,” he told me. “Prisons don’t seem to be going after any site other than Facebook. That’s what they see inmates on, and that’s what they know how to use.”

It wasn’t always this way. Back in 2006, he said, Myspace was the social network of choice for both inmates and corrections officials. “It had just taken over, it was the most visited site on the Internet,” Maass said.

There was a campaign in Texas to take down the pages of prisoners on death row. This was before the rise of smartphones, so inmates operated their pages through a proxy family member or friend, with whom they communicated by letter. Myspace stood firm that inmates shouldn’t lose their accounts just because they were inmates.

“Unless you violate the terms of service or break the law, we don't step in the middle of free expression,” a Myspace spokesman told USA Today at the time. “There's a lot on our site we don’t approve of in terms of taste or ideas, but it's not our role to be censors.”