ARUN RATH, HOST:
Larissa was a low-risk inmate at the Alabama Department of Corrections. She was allowed to leave prison on a furlough to work at a Burger King. Sarah Shourd wrote about Larissa, whose name is withheld for her protection, in the Daily Beast.
SARAH SHOURD: So what happened is Larissa was working at Burger King, and she somehow got Internet access, which is not allowed at the facility where she was being incarcerated. The first thing she did is go on Facebook and look at pictures of her children - Easter pictures. And while she was on, someone sent her an instant message, and she responded.
RATH: Someone found out about that interaction and reported her. Larissa's visiting privileges were taken away, and her sentence was extended by six months. Prisoners getting caught using social media and getting punished for it is not unusual. But unlike Larissa, most inmates using Facebook are using contraband cell phones.
SHOURD: Smuggled phones are ubiquitous now in prisons. And a lot of that has to do with the fact that facilities are gouging prisoners and their families for basic contact. Phone calls are expensive. And in a lot of cases, it's worth the risk for a prisoner to get a smuggled cell phone and stay in touch with their family that way.
RATH: Still, I think a lot of people would view social media as a kind of luxury, an indulgence, and would say, you know, why aren't phone calls enough? Why do prisoners need Facebook?
SHOURD: I mean, I think this is an ongoing conversation. I don't think it's clear. California Departments of Corrections public officer told me of a convicted child molester going on Facebook through a smuggled cell phone and looking at pictures of their victim and drawing portraits and sending them. That's a horrifying story. The other side of that is that we all want to reduce mass incarceration now, on both sides of the political spectrum. So there has to be a way for prisoners to not only stay in touch with their families that is affordable, but also for prisoners to stay in touch with technology, so that when they get out, they have the skills that it takes to find a job, to find an apartment.
RATH: Was Larissa's story typical of the kind of punishments that prisoners tend to get for using social media?
SHOURD: That's the thing - is this is new, and a lot of prison administrations are worried about the fact that they can't control it. But there's no real standard. Every prison across the country in every state is dealing with this problem differently.
RATH: And what is Facebook's position on all of this?
SHOURD: Well, that's what's interesting - is for over the past year, the EFF - the Electronic Frontier Foundation - here in San Francisco and the ACLU have been engaging with Facebook on it. And it seemed very clear from a lot of the documents that were gotten through the Public Information Act that Facebook was just taking down whatever page any prison asked them to, no questions asked. And really, this amounts to doing the dirty work of the prisons, and Facebook is a private company. They can do whatever they want, but they can't collude with a government entity in censoring citizens, whether they're free or not. So it seems that they have adjusted their procedure and that they're now pushing back and actually asking the facility to justify the request with some sort of tangible proof that this prisoner is a danger.
RATH: Sarah, is there anybody in this debate that's offering a better way, a better set of rules? Or is there always going to be a risk of abuse when you have prisoners communicating with the outside world?
SHOURD: Well, that risk exists anyway in Facebook. I mean, there's harassment. There's all kind of abuse that happens over Facebook. That may be increased in some cases when it comes to prison. But I think that we also need to look at the fact that the vast majority of prisoners are going to get out. And when they get out, if they have no social ties, if their families are broken, they end up back in prison.
RATH: Sarah Shourd is a contributor to the Daily Beast. Sarah, thanks very much.
SHOURD: Thank you so much.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.