In the criminal justice system, when it comes to punishment, there is typically what is known as the concept of proportionality. We all know that some crimes receive relatively light punishment. A drunk driving conviction may result in some jail time, substance abuse classes, a fine and perhaps a ignition interlock in your vehicle.
And most people know that within the criminal justice system, a serious crime, like murder or rape can result in very long sentences. In some states, the very worst crimes can be punished with the death penalty. And we expect that the while the worst crimes receive the most severe sentences, some states have turned that concept on its head.
For those in prison, disciplinary action is something of a challenge. How do you punish someone who has already lost their liberty?
With solitary confinement.
Again, you might expect that solitary would be reserved for prison murders or other such violent crimes. Then you might be surprised to learn that in South Carolina prisons, the notorious crime of posting to a social media site, is akin to murder, riot or hostage-taking.
Solitary confinement is a harsh punishment and the deprivation of basic human contact for often 23 hours a day can have severe psychological effects on persons subjected to that punishment.
Yet this policy can be applied to an inmate, no matter the reason for the their seeking internet access. It can apply for threatening a witness or for organizing a campaign to work for their release from prison. It does not matter, the punishment is the same.
A recent study by the Electronic Frontier Foundation discovered hundreds of inmates who were disciplined for use of Facebook. One received 37.5 years in solitary for violations involving 38 posts on Facebook.
While prisons need to maintain discipline, the incredibly punitive nature of these punishments seems absurd. And sadly, these are not unique to places like South Carolina, but a recent report on inmate discipline in the Iowa Department of Corrections suggests that this state is hardly an exemplar of enlightened correctional practices.
Eff.org, “Hundreds of South Carolina Inmates Sent to Solitary Confinement Over Facebook,” Dave Maass, February 12, 2014