Feb 13, 2015 · 2 minutes

Hundreds of prisoners in South Carolina have been sent to solitary confinement for visiting Facebook, which is considered "on par with murder, rape, rioting, escape and hostage-taking" by a rule introduced in 2012, the Electronic Frontier Foundation says.

Solitary confinement is perhaps the cruelest punishment allowed by the American legal system. (At least for prisoners in the United States -- "detainees" in Guantanamo have endured crueler treatment.) And it's becoming increasingly controversial, too.

Here's what NPR said in a story about the debate over solitary confinement in 2013:

As prisoners testify about suicidal depression, self-mutilation, lethargy, hallucinations and other ills, more attention is being paid to inmates who have lived through the extreme, often uncertain isolation.
A prisoner in Texas offered a similar anecdote to the American Civil Liberties Union, which noted in its blog post that the description comes from a prison in Texas instead of "from some dystopian dictatorship," for an ACLU report published on February 9:
Every day from dusk to dawn there's noise, banging, clanking, yelling, screaming. Everyday someone is getting hurt or hurting themselves. Everyday there's fire and floods and complete chaos & hate…Every day is a challenge here. A challenge against insanity.
This is the hell to which hundreds of prisoners in South Carolina have been sent for using Facebook. And because the rule about accessing social networks is so strict, an inmate who visits Facebook can end up with an unimaginable sentence, as EFF notes:
The sentences are so long because SCDC issues a separate Level 1 violation for each day that an inmate accesses a social network. An inmate who posts five status updates over five days, would receive five separate Level 1 violations, while an inmate who posted 100 updates in one day would receive only one.

In other words, if a South Carolina inmate caused a riot, took three hostages, murdered them, stole their clothes, and then escaped, he could still wind up with fewer Level 1 offenses than an inmate who updated Facebook every day for two weeks. Facebook doesn't come out of the EFF's report looking great, either. The company is known to take down inmates' accounts at a warden's request, often without requiring them to prove the account was abused. As Slate notes in its report on the censorship:

[Facebook] claims it doesn’t suspend prisoners’ Facebook pages for violating prison regulations, but rather for violating Facebook’s Terms of Service by giving their password to somebody else. But the EFF uncovered at least one instance in which Facebook suspended a prisoner’s account explicitly 'for not following inmate regulations.'
The result: A system through which prisoners can be subjected to the cruelest treatment allowed on American soil while their holders are able to censor them by appealing to a company which doesn't appear to care about inmates' freedoms.

Still think Mark Zuckerberg isn't full of it?

[illustration by Hallie Bateman]