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Texas inmates are now barred from using social media

Critics say policy violates First Amendment rights to free speech

Inmates in Texas prisons are now barred from using any form of social media, under a rule that was implemented this month. As Fusion reports, the measure prohibits inmates from "maintaining active social media accounts for the purposes of soliciting, updating, or engaging others," and bars their friends or family from operating social media accounts in their name. The rule was added to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice's offender handbook on April 11th.

Officials say the measure aims to mitigate the misuse of social media among inmates, but critics argue that it violates their rights to free speech, and that it would shutter one of the few windows they have to the outside world.

Jason Clark, spokesperson for the criminal justice department, tells Fusion that the state will ask social media companies to take down accounts created in inmates' names. "Offenders have used social media accounts to sell items over the internet based on the notoriety of their crime, harass victims or victim’s families, and continue their criminal activity," Clark said in an email. "The agency will take all of the necessary steps to prevent that from happening."

Critics say policy violates First Amendment rights

Other states have implemented similar policies; in South Carolina, inmates found using social media can be punished with solitary confinement. Under the Texas rule, social media users would face a level three disciplinary violation. That's the lowest level of violation, though as Electronic Frontier Foundation researcher Dave Maass points out, it can still result in serious consequences, including up to 45 days of cell confinement and extra duties.

Maass argues that the ban would also harm transparency, noting that social media has become an important tool for drawing attention to prison conditions. "Supporters of inmates often use social media to raise attention about prison conditions and the appeal campaigns of individual prisoners," he wrote in a blog post this week. "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."

Facebook used to automatically comply with requests to suspend inmates' accounts, before implementing a more discerning policy in 2015. In his blog post, Maass called on Facebook and other social media sites to "resist this censorship regime."

Correction 9:59AM ET: An earlier version of this article misspelled Dave Maass' name. We regret the error.