Now More Than Ever, Prisoners Should Have Some Access to Social Media

By Mark Rumold –

COVID-19 has trapped many of us in our homes, isolating us from family and friends and limiting our movements. But there are few people who feel the isolating impacts of COVID-19 more acutely than those who are actually incarcerated­ in jails and prisons across the country. As Jerry Metcalf, an inmate in Michigan, wrote for the Marshall Project’s “Life on the Inside” series:

For those of you reading this who feel trapped or are going stir-crazy due to your coronavirus-induced confinement, the best advice I can give you—as someone used to suffering in long-term confinement—is to take a pause, inhale a few deep breaths, then look around at all the things you have to be grateful for.

Metcalf’s is an important perspective to have, but, unfortunately, it is increasingly difficult to hear from inmates like him. That’s because prison systems are making it harder for the public to hear from incarcerated people through excessive restrictions on the ways prisoners can express themselves over the Internet.

It’s especially important to hear from Metcalf, and others like him, in this moment—given the heightened risk COVID-19 poses to inmates. The virus has already demonstrated an ability to move swiftly through closed spaces, like cruise ships and nursing homes—and it’s already made its way into several prison systems, the consequences of which we’ll sadly see unfold over the next several weeks. As Metcalf described it, COVID-19 has turned his prison into a “death trap.” Given the potential humanitarian crisis many prisoners now face, it’s critically important to receive unvarnished reports from them about life inside prison walls.

For those outside of prison, social media has been an important tool during the pandemic—helping us connect with family and friends, to share updates and news, and to stay informed.

But, overwhelmingly, the incarcerated cannot connect to the outside world in this way.

At EFF, we’ve long been concerned with government attempts to unduly limit prisoners’ speech—especially by limiting access to technology that would allow the incarcerated to lift their voices beyond the prison walls. These restrictions come in a variety of forms, but one type we’ve paid particular attention to in the past is limitations on access to social media.

Many states prohibit inmates from accessing or posting information to social media in any manner. Some states, like Alabama and Iowa (pdf), go so far as to limit the ability of third-parties outside of prison—like a friend or relative—to post information to social media on an inmate’s behalf. Some of these policies can even extend beyond what we typically think of as social media, prohibiting access to email or even any online publication of prisoners’ speech (including, as a potential example, stories like Metcalf’s published by the Marshall Project). Violations can carry extreme and disproportionate consequences. For example, some inmates in South Carolina received years in solitary confinement for posting on Facebook while in prison.

Even in calmer times, draconian limitations on social media access are dangerous and raise serious First Amendment concerns. Prisoners, and those who support them, use social media to raise awareness about prison conditions; to garner support for court cases or clemency proceedings; and to otherwise advocate for important social and political issues.

As we’ve said before, invoking the immortal words of Martin Luther King, Jr, whose writings from jail changed the course of civil rights in America:

Inmates may lose many liberties when they enter the correction system, but the ability to participate in debate online should not be one of them. Censorship of prisoners is also censorship of society at large because it deprives the public of the freedom to read the long letters, consider the long thoughts, and hear the long prayers of people who have lost their freedom.

The need to hear these voices now is particularly important—as prisons begin to close to outside visitors, and further isolate, in an attempt to stave off COVID-19. Jerry Metcalf’s perspective—from inside a prison in Michigan in the midst of a global pandemic—is equally important if it’s published by the Marshall Project or if it’s shared by a relative in a Facebook post. What’s important is that the world is able to hear his story, and those like him, right now.

As the pandemic unfolds, state agencies should take a flexible approach to enforcement of restrictions on inmates’ ability to connect with the outside world, including curbing the enforcement of overly restrictive social media policies. We’ll be carefully watching to make sure any restrictions that are applied are done so consistent with the First Amendment rights of inmates and those who support them.