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 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.
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).