|MOJ in Petty France: |
The Heart of Darkness
Given that this social media prohibition first appeared on the official GOV.UK website in December, my concern was that prisoners’ relatives and supporters might be intimidated from passing on information provided by those who are behind bars. I sensed an implied, if unspecified, threat of legal sanctions or other types of retribution against either prisoners or their family members – or perhaps both.
In particular, I was worried about possible impact on the continued use of social media platforms by those campaigning against miscarriages of justice or by prison bloggers who write out their posts by hand and then send them out to be typed up. This activity is currently permitted according to the rules set out in PSI 37/2010: Prisoners’ Access to the Media.
This is an especially sensitive issue given the past struggles of other prisoners – such as Ben Gunn and Adam Mac – to maintain blogs that play a vital role in bridging the vast information gap between their cells and the general public. I consider the hard won right of serving prisoners to blog (subject to usual prison security monitoring of material they send out by post) is just too precious to risk losing because of a faceless MOJ bureaucrat’s diktat.
At that point the national media became interested and several journalists, including Mark Leftly, the deputy political editor of The Independent on Sunday, got in touch with me and we discussed the issue. Mark took on the story and started investigating.
Within a matter of hours, the MoJ had beat a very hasty retreat and the offending paragraph had disappeared from the GOV.UK page to be replaced by a simple statement of fact: ‘Prisoners aren’t allowed to access social networking websites (eg Facebook or Twitter) while they’re in custody.’ No mention of any ban on what prisoners’ families, friends or supporters can post on any social media sites.
So what was the explanation that the Independent on Sunday managed to get out of the MoJ for this rapid retreat? Well, Mark Leftly was told that: “An inaccurate statement on GOV.UK regarding social media was corrected after being brought to our attention.” This story was published in the Independent of Sunday on 24 January.
|Drugs & knife in a prison cell-fie|
Given the current levels of understaffing in our prisons, along with a rise in violence and drug use, the MOJ is particularly keen to emphasise that prisons remain under control of the authorities, even when the hard evidence leaking out might sometimes suggest otherwise. The bottom line is that photos taken inside jails by prisoners using smuggled phones and then posted online are a source of political embarrassment to both the MOJ and to the National Offender Management Service (NOMS).
There are various issues still unresolved, however. For example, why should a serving prisoner’s social media accounts be automatically shut down by Facebook or Twitter when no new criminal offence – such as harassment or contacting victims in breach of an order – has been proven? Social media is now such an embedded part of everyday life that I believe deletion of accounts, including years of archived photos, messages, conversations and contact lists, should only be a final resort once actual misuse, breaches of prison rules or online criminal activity has been proven.
|Quick to delete without evidence?|
At internal adjudications conducted by a governor grade (as opposed to those presided over by a judge), prisoners are only able to request an adjournment to get legal advice (often 10 minutes on a prison pay phone) and can also be denied professional representation at the presiding governor’s discretion. Could a members of a prisoner’s family give evidence at such a hearing in order to rebut a charge?
|Online social media death:|
deletion by Facebook
It remains to be seen whether pressure from the hardline law and order lobby (or more likely politicians keen to prove their ‘tough on criminals’ credentials) will eventually campaign for serving prisoners to undergo a form of ‘social media death’ upon conviction and incarceration, including total deletion of their Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and Snapchat accounts. Could it ever become a general licence condition for prisoners released at the halfway point of their sentences to keep off social media services or face a breach and a return to custody, even when they haven’t been convicted of any type of internet offences?
|Silencing prisoners' voices|
While such pressure might well be open to legal challenge, these court actions cost money which most prisoners’ families or supporters simply don’t have. It can be all too easy for the powerful to intimidate and silence the powerless and vulnerable.
The #NoToGovesGag campaign gave us a very quick win. It cost nothing beyond people’s time and some very welcome national media interest. However, next time we prison campaigners may not be so fortunate. If we really value informed comment from serving prisoners on blogs or via Twitter, or online innocence campaigns that actively involve those rotting behind bars for crimes they may not have committed, then all of us need to be vigilant when it comes to underhand attempts by the MOJ or NOMS to silence prisoners’ voices.