The US might restrict social media in prisons and inmates are worried: ‘I may lose my voice soon’

<span>An inmate makes a phone call at a correctional facility in Connecticut on 24 May 2016.</span><span>Photograph: John Moore/Getty Images</span>
An inmate makes a phone call at a correctional facility in Connecticut on 24 May 2016.Photograph: John Moore/Getty Images

A proposed change to US prison rules is threatening to punish inmates for using social media or directing others to do so on their behalf, severing what some view as a vital link to the outside world.

Delores Eggerson manages her son’s social media accounts while he serves a life sentence in Arkansas. For almost 22 years, she’s logged into his Facebook from her home in Manville, Texas, screenshotting messages from old classmates, or photos from family reunions. It’s become her way of feeling connected – a part of his incarceration – and the solitary life he now has to lead.

“It gives me so much joy when he calls and says, Mom, I got the pictures; who is this, and we get to talk,” Delores said. “The whole family is not incarcerated, and this gives us a sense of being together.”

At 75 years old, Delores hasn’t always had an easy time navigating social media. After her son, AnDreco Lott was convicted in 2001, she returned to school, obtaining her master’s degree in public administration to develop her computer skills.

“There is so much discrimination in the system: skin color, finances, status,” Delores added. “I needed to understand the laws so I could help him.”

While federal inmates nationwide are already prohibited from using cellphones, code 294 – the crackdown proposed by the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) – goes a step further.

Related: Incarcerated people use TikTok videos to expose Alabama’s prison conditions

The government agency uses a tiered system of discipline, ranking violations committed in institutions nationwide by their security level: greatest, high, moderate and low. Inmates using social media or having families run their accounts have been proposed as “high” risk, putting them in the same category as violence, fighting, or damaging property.

“There is no articulated reason, explanation or justification to this,” Shanna Rifkin, deputy general counsel at Families Against Mandatory Minimums, told the Guardian. “It reads as an afterthought, but I can assure you that for incarcerated people and their loved ones, it is anything but. Social media is a tool of connection, and connection to family and friends is more important than ever when someone you love is incarcerated.”

Over the last decade, social media has become an increasingly essential tool for many of the approximately 2 million people incarcerated nationwide.

Storytelling and advocacy have found homes on platforms like TikTok and Instagram, allowing inmates to share their stories with a global audience. Clemency petitions often gain traction when delivered this way, giving families and individuals an accessible platform without needing a deep legal understanding that is much more likely to result in change.

One such example is Alice Marie Johnson, who had been sentenced to life imprisonment without parole in 1997 for a nonviolent crime. She was the subject of a social media campaign in 2017 after the news outlet Mic published a video of Johnson telling her story in her own words. The video went viral and caught the attention of Kim Kardashian, who worked with then president Donald Trump to commute Johnson’s sentence and ultimately get her released from prison in 2018.

Social media has also become a perhaps unrivaled way of shedding light on the abuse happening inside prisons. Poor living conditions and civil rights violations are routine topics on these platforms, with hashtags like #prisontok and #prisonlife getting tens of thousands of views. Videos show everything from cramped bunk rooms to horrible food to unsanitary bathrooms, introducing online audiences to an honest portrayal of everyday life behind bars.

Several high-profile incarcerated people, like Ross Ulbricht and the Tiger King star Joe Exotic, use their accounts this way, appealing to their thousands of followers to regularly push their petitions for freedom. The accounts, run either by loved ones or, in Exotic’s case, an agency, post at least once daily, keeping their names and stories at the forefront of social discourse.

Ulbricht, an American serving a life sentence for creating and operating the dark web marketplace Silk Road, recently spoke out about the proposed code 294 on his Twitter/X account.

“I may lose my voice soon. I found out the Bureau of Prisons is thinking of preventing prisoners from having any social media presence (even those with an account entirely run by a loved one, like mine),” he wrote.

“I’m scared I won’t be able to share my life with you anymore.”

Megan Posco is a publicist who runs the social media accounts for John J Lennon, an incarcerated journalist serving a 28-years-to-life sentence at Sullivan correctional facility in New York. She agrees with the importance of maintaining this digital bridge between inmates and the outside world.

“There is this assumption that people inside don’t want to see what’s happening in the outside world because it’s in their face,” Posco said.

“But this isn’t true. People like John love receiving photos and seeing, through an intermediary, what’s happening in the lives of others.”

Posco typically tweets for Lennon every day, resharing his articles for Esquire or the New York Review of Books. Doing so for two years, she’s adept at replicating his talking voice. Sometimes, he’ll ask her to post something, requesting certain words be used, and she will have already done it. This relationship keeps his work alive and involved in public discourse.

For families like the Eggersons and Lotts, where these accounts are a way of keeping their loved one’s memories alive and establishing them as an individual beyond their sentences, the consequences of these changes would be far-reaching and unimaginable.

“It would be devastating to me and his children,” Delores said, talking about her son, Lott, and her grandchildren.

“He communicates with them that way as well. He is in prison for a crime, and he has done the time for that crime; it would absolutely devastate our relationship.”