The New Mexico Department of Corrections is rethinking its social media and internet access policy for thousands of inmates after being warned that it likely violates constitutional rights to free speech.
The department’s current policy prohibits people outside of prison from posting pictures, status updates and comments on sites like Facebook and Twitter for inmates. Officials are giving it a second look after three civil rights advocacy groups objected to a private prison employee’s recommendation that Eric “Snuff” Aldaz spend 90 days in solitary confinement at the Northeast New Mexico Detention Facility in Clayton. His offense was refusing to ask his family to delete a Facebook page they administered for him.
“My son is in an urn, and this guy gets to have a social page,” Brenda Staten complained on the Chaves County Crime Stoppers Facebook page in March. “That’s a crime.”
Technically, it’s not a crime, but the department decided to contact Facebook officials in California and have Aldaz’ page deleted because they believed it violated state corrections rules.
That action raised concerns for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Human Rights Defense Center, the publisher of Prison Legal News, and the American Civil Liberties Union in New Mexico.
On July 11, Electronic Freedom Foundation Investigative Researcher Dave Maass, along with four other representatives from the groups, wrote a letter to Corrections Department General Counsel Jim Brewster suggesting the policy “is not rationally related to any legitimate penological interest and is so vague that we do not believe it can be applied in a just and constitutional manner.”
“In the digital age, this policy places an undue burden on free speech of prisoners, and their family and friends,” the letter reads.
The groups contends the policy creates a chilling effect on inmates and their families, who may “avoid any kind of speech for fear of extreme punitive measures, such as months in solitary confinement.”
A similar policy was struck down by an Arizona court as unconstitutional a decade ago.
New Mexico's ambiguous policy could impact a family’s ability to control an inmate’s bank account and even do medical or legal research for prisoners, the groups argue. It could also prevent online news sites from publishing an inmate's letters to the editor, they argue.
Corrections' claim that social media doesn’t help inmates create meaningful relationships with people on the outside also disturbs Maass. Social media, his letter states, allows inmates to stay connected with friends and family.
“This is of particular significance in New Mexico, where geographical distances create barriers for families to communicate with each other and with inmates,” writes Maass, adding that research “has consistently found that prisoners who maintain close contact with family members have lower recidivism rates.”
Aldaz, who is serving a sentence for violent crimes, appealed the strict social media discipline from his solitary confinement cell. While that specific discipline has been dropped, Aldaz remains segregated, according to department spokeswoman Alex Tomlin, for making threats and possessing tattoo equipment.
Tomlin says the Corrections Department welcomes input on its policies from outside groups but does not know when its review on inmates' social media and internet access would be completed.