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Photograph by Jenn Vargas
Photograph by Jenn Vargas

Texas prisons’ new rules aim to force social media to close inmate accounts

New rules prohibit friends and family from updating Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram.

by Megan Geuss

This month the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) updated its offender handbook (PDF) to stipulate that inmates are not allowed to have social media accounts. While blog posts are still permitted, a spokesperson for the TDCJ told Ars that the rule was developed to get social media platforms to comply with the corrections department’s takedown requests more readily.

Since Texas inmates are not allowed Internet access, this rule applies to social media accounts managed by friends or family. As Fusion explains, “Prisoners write posts, send them to a friend or family member through snail mail, and ask the friend to post them on Facebook.” If an inmate is caught having a friend or family member update an account for them, they’re charged with a “level three violation,” which TDCJ characterizes as the lowest level of violation in the Texas prison system.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), however, says that level three violations can result in loss of privileges, extra work duty, or confinement to an inmate’s cell for up to 45 days. The EFF objects to the new rules in Texas, arguing that “a person does not lose all of their rights to participate in public discourse when they are incarcerated… This policy would not only prohibit the prisoners’ exercise of their First Amendment rights, but also prevent the public from exercising their First Amendment rights to gather information about the criminal justice system from those most affected by it.” The TDCJ had no response to the EFF’s argument.

In an e-mail to Ars, TDCJ spokesperson Jason Clark noted that the new rules did not apply to blog posts written by inmates. “The rule is specific to active social media accounts such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc,” he wrote. “Those companies have mechanisms in place that allow us to request that the pages be deactivated. Private Web pages don’t have a mechanism to request they be taken down and we cannot force them to comply.”

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