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Civil rights groups denounce efforts to punish US federal inmates for their use of social media

WASHINGTON: A proposed change to US federal prison rules that would punish inmates who use social media or ask others to do so on their behalf could infringe on the free speech rights of people who advocate for interests of incarcerated people, activists say.

Civil liberties advocates face a deadline Monday to push the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) to back down from the proposed change, included in a planned overhaul of its disciplinary rules for the more than 155,000 inmates in its custody.

Federal inmates are already prohibited from using cell phones and accessing the Internet.

Although a separate part of the BOP plan would also criminalize the use of social media to commit a crime, the bureau does not explain why it wants to punish inmates more broadly for their use of social media.

“It would not only restrict the First Amendment rights of people who are incarcerated, but I think it would also appear to go too far in restricting the First Amendment rights of people who are not even in BOP custody,” said Deputy Shanna Rifkin. of the BOP. general counsel for the nonprofit inmate rights group FAMM.

BOP spokeswoman Kristie Breshears said the measure was just a proposal and no changes were imminent. The final policy could change based on public input, she added.

Ebony Underwood, whose nonprofit We Got Us Now works with children of incarcerated parents, called the social media proposal “archaic and so inhumane.”

“Social media has allowed many young people in my community to advocate for our parents,” she added.

Black Americans have historically been the hardest hit by the country’s mass incarceration policies. Currently, nearly 39 percent of the BOP prison population is black, even though blacks made up 15 percent of the U.S. population in 2022.

Advocacy organizations and family members often use social media to help inmates gain support for pardon or compassionate release.

“Storytelling, advocacy and social media have been key to getting people home,” said Amy Ralston Povah, whose nonprofit CAN-DO foundation helps inmates advocate for clemency.

Social media is also used to expose poor living conditions, civil rights violations and prison abuses.

The BOP uses a tiered discipline system, with offenses ranked by level of severity: highest, highest, moderate, and lowest.

As proposed, social media use would be classified as “high”, putting it on par with offenses such as extortion, affray and damage to property.

Criminal justice advocates fear the proposal will deter people from posting about an inmate, lest it result in a serious penalty such as solitary confinement or a longer prison sentence through the deduction of good time credits.

Charles Weisselberg, a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley, said any information advocates or their relatives might use online about the inmates and their condition would already be transmitted through channels monitored by the BOP.

“I don’t understand their interest in preventing the further release of something they’ve already looked at,” he said.

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