Thursday, August 18, 2011

Facebook Cooperating with Prisons

The past several years have seen a great deal of moral panic surrounding prisoner access to illicit cell phones and/or social networking sites (by proxy). Cell phones, prison administrators argue, are used to coordinate crimes on the outside or escapes from the inside, whereas MySpace and Facebook pages enable the incarcerated to stalk their victims. As a response, Facebook recently agreed to work with California prison officials to dismantle inmates' pages.

In my experience, social networking has been a vital mechanism for opening the closed world of prisons to public scrutiny. Not only do sites like Facebook allow inmates to communicate about prison conditions, but can also function as mechanisms for organizing around individual cases. For example, in 2007, I was part of a large scale campaign that successfully halted an execution in Texas; social networking sites like Facebook and YouTube were indispensable organizing tools.

For the past quarter of a century, the playbook has been simple, direct, and frighteningly successful. Play the fear card, mention the word "victim," and shut down rational debate. It's unclear to me how anyone could "stalk their victims" through Facebook. This is a perfect example of dragging a particularly stinky red herring across the trail, something prison bureaucrats are wont to do.

I don't want to naively suggest that social media are never used to harm others; however, such tools are also capable of empowering public scrutiny of the criminal justice system. Unfortunately, the very social networking site that is so widely credited with advancing the cause of revolution in Northern Africa and the Middle East is now complicit in closing public access to a human rights catastrophe on its own turf.