“Never before have I written so long a letter. I'm afraid it is much too long to take your precious time. I can assure you that it would have been much shorter if I had been writing from a comfortable desk, but what else can one do when he is alone in a narrow jail cell, other than write long letters, think long thoughts and pray long prayers?”

- Martin Luther King, Jr., “Letter from Birmingham City Jail”

April 16, 1963

Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham City Jail” is considered by many civil-rights historians to be one of the seminal writings of the era, on par with King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. But while King’s moving oration at the Lincoln Memorial was delivered directly to thousands, his impassioned letter was composed in solitary confinement and would not have seen the light of day without the help of several brave and dedicated intermediaries.

In the spring of 1963, King was arrested after he and others in the racial equality movement defied a court injunction against public protesting. From behind bars, he obtained a copy of a joint-statement written by white religious leaders criticizing his methods. King felt compelled to respond. As the daughters of King’s attorney, Arthur Shores, explain in their father’s biography, King scribbled his response in the margins of old newspapers and on toilet paper and other paper scraps; his lawyers smuggled the notes out of the jail to be transcribed, then they smuggled the edits back into the jail for King to review. Eventually, the letter made it onto the pages of several influential newspapers. 

If King were a prisoner in the state of Alabama today, those supporters may very well have first published the letter on King’s Facebook page. But under current Alabama law, that would have been a crime:

Section 14-11-70

Prohibited activities; violations.

(a) No inmate in the custody of the Department of Corrections or city and county jails shall establish or maintain an account on any Internet-based social networking website.

(b) For purposes of this section, social networking website means an Internet-based website that has any of the following capabilities:

(1) Allows users to create web pages or profiles about themselves that are available to the general public or to any other users.

(2) Offers a mechanism for communication among users, such as a forum, chat room, electronic mail, or instant messaging.

(c) Any inmate or other person working in conjunction with a state correction's inmate who violates this section shall be guilty of a misdemeanor, punishable by a fine not to exceed five hundred dollars ($500).

Alabama’s law not only forbids inmates from having active social networking profiles, but it also defines “social networking” so broadly that it encompasses any site that offers web-based email. And any person who assists a state inmate in accessing a social networking website, such as acting as a go-between, could also face prosecution. (King, however, was a city inmate.)

Alabama is only one of many states that have enacted regulations barring inmates from accessing social media, and many other states have consequences far harsher than Alabama’s $500 fine. For example:

  • In New Mexico, state Corrections Department regulations forbid inmates from accessing the Internet through third parties. One inmate was sentenced to 90 days in solitary confinement after his family updated his Facebook page.
  • In Indiana, a prisoner was sent to solitary confinement, and his sister was cut off from communicating with him, after she posted a videogram he had made through the prison’s communications system to Facebook as part of a social media campaign to raise attention for his case.
  • In South Carolina, hundreds of inmates have been sentenced to solitary confinement for accessing Facebook—both through intermediaries and contraband cell phones—with some receiving decades-long sentences. The South Carolina Department of Corrections has also sent hundreds of takedown requests to Facebook, successfully getting Facebook to suspend inmate accounts—an alarming new censorship trend.

In defending these policies, corrections officials argue that inmates can use Facebook to plan criminal activities and harass victims. But banning all online or social media speech by inmates is far too broad and restrictive of a measure to deal with such a narrow problem. While such uses of social media should be addressed, this is not a strong enough reason to indiscriminately ban all inmate speech over social media or on the Internet. Inmates have First Amendment rights, too. 

Social media can be beneficial to the rehabilitation process by allowing inmates to maintain connections with the outside world, including their support network of families and friends. And as we have already seen, society benefits when prisoners are able to engage in public debate. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. is only one example. Chelsea Manning and Barrett Brown are two others.

Since being sentenced to 35 years in prison for being a Wikileaks source, Manning has contributed insightful essays to The Guardian’s Comment if Free opinion blog, with covers issues ranging from ISIS and CIA torture to the treatment of transgender individuals in prison. Manning also recently joined Twitter (@xychelsea); she composes tweets over the phone to her communications consultants at FitzGibbon Media, who then transcribe and post the comments online.

Similarly, journalist Barrett Brown, who has been incarcerated for crimes stemming from an FBI investigation into the high-profile breach of an intelligence contractor’s data systems, also has been publishing articles while in custody. His work has appeared in publications such as The Daily Beast and Vice, as well as the Free Barrett Brown Tumblr page. Alarmingly, earlier this month, his access to the prison email system was abruptly cut off after he began corresponding with journalist Glenn Greenwald about contributing pieces to The Intercept.  

Inmates may lose many liberties when they enter the correction system, but the ability to participate in debate online should not be one of them. Censorship of prisoners is also censorship of society at large because it deprives the public of the freedom to read the long letters, consider the long thoughts, and hear the long prayers of people who have lost their freedom.  

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