The photos seem innocuous.
Several people posed in front of mirrors. Others snapped selfies in cars. They made funny faces or just smiled.
Some even added fun filters – tiny, floating pink hearts and golden butterflies.
But the captions accompanying the pictures, which appear to be of uniformed corrections officers from various states, were another story.
“Feeling cute, might just gas some inmates today, IDK,” one post read, according to the Houston Chronicle. The rest of the posts continued in a similar vein.
“Feeling cute, might shoot your baby daddy today...idk.”
“Feeling cute, might take your homeboy to the hole later.”
“Feeling cute, I’m still going to lock you down.”
What were intended as spin-offs of the viral #FeelingCuteChallenge have since sparked outrage this week as many argued the posts made light of serious issues surrounding the treatment of inmates.
According to local media reports, at least two state corrections departments have launched investigations into employees accused of taking part in the challenge.
As with many social media trends, the origins of the challenge are murky, but participation is fairly straightforward.
All people have to do is share a photo of themselves at their jobs or in their work uniforms along with text that begins with “Feeling cute,” or some version of the phrase, followed by a joke about their line of work.
The challenge is a variation of the “feeling cute, might delete later” meme.
The “Feeling cute” hashtag began picking up steam several weeks ago on social media as teachers, postal workers, first responders, firefighters and law enforcement officers, among many others, shared versions of the meme.
Some took offence to posts from police officers joking about arresting people or pulling drivers “over for tint”.
A now-viral post from a Georgia water employee who said he “might cut your water off later” also drew criticism, the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer reported last week.
The trend soon caught on with correctional officers, many of whom shared their images in a now private Facebook group called “Correctional Officer Life,” the Chronicle reported.
The group has about 30,000 members and describes itself as a place to “discuss, share, socialise and study experiences in officers’ life from all over the world”.
America’s Police Problem, a website dedicated to law enforcement accountability, gathered nearly 40 different posts from the Facebook group and published them on Sunday, accusing the officers of taking the challenge to a “new dangerous level”.
Captions ranged from jokes about using Taser guns or other force on inmates to planting drugs on them or putting them into “the box”, a reference to a type of solitary confinement.
The Chronicle matched the names of two people who posted memes that referenced gassing inmates to current Texas prison employees.
In a statement to The Washington Post on Wednesday, Jeremy Desel, a spokesperson from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, said officials there were “aware” of the posts.
“A handful of correctional officers employed by this agency are under investigation for on- and off-duty conduct violations as a result of the alleged posting of inappropriate photographs on social media,” Mr Desel said.
He added: “These officers in no way represent the thousands of TDCJ employees who go to work every day taking public safety seriously in all ways.
“If any of these allegations prove correct, then swift disciplinary action as severe as termination of involved employees will occur.”
Officials from the Georgia Department of Corrections condemned the social media posts.
“The alleged actions of these individuals do not reflect the conduct expected of any GDC employee, and will not be tolerated,” spokeswoman Joan Heath said in an email on Wednesday.
“If the allegations are found to be substantiated, swift and appropriate disciplinary action will be taken.”
In Missouri, after a Jefferson City corrections officer’s post about “taking your homeboy to the hole” raised concerns, prison officials said on Tuesday they were also investigating, KOMU reported.
“All department of corrections employees are trained in the prevention and reporting of harassment, discrimination and unprofessional conduct and are expected to help ensure that interactions with offenders and fellow employees are professional and respectful,” Karen Pojmann, communications director for the Missouri Department of Corrections, told the news station.
Officials from the other state corrections departments did not respond to requests for comment.
Recent investigations into prisons across the US have revealed accounts of abuse.
Last February, three Milwaukee County Jail employees faced felony charges after a mentally ill inmate was allegedly denied water for a week as punishment and died of dehydration, The Washington Post reported.
In May 2018, three officials at the Metropolitan Detention Centre in Brooklyn were charged with sexually assaulting at least six female inmates, according to the New York Times.
On social media, the contents of the posts – a number of which have been taken down, but not before still images were taken – weathered fierce backlash.
One Twitter user described the officers’ actions as “disgusting”.
“I hope they’re still ‘feeling cute’ on the unemployment line,” another person wrote on Facebook.
The Washington Post