Despite the human rights culture of the South African legal framework, prisoners present a serious security risk if they are allowed access to social media, says a Cape Town attorney.
Fin24 recently reported that a Facebook page, apparently created by prisoners in Pollsmoor maximum security prison, had attracted over 2 600 likes on the social network before all the content suddenly vanished.
It also appears that Facebook shut the page down.
South African legislation specifically mandates that prisoners should be allowed to keep up with news from their communities.
“Moreover, the Correctional Services Act states that a prisoner must be allowed access to reading material unless that material poses a security risk or is not conducive to their rehabilitation,” specialist technology attorney Russel Luck told Fin24.
Following the revelations of the online page, authorities subsequently raided the cells and confiscated 49 cellphones among other electronic devices.
Luck, however, dismissed that validity of granting prisoners access to social media as a rehabilitation programme, given the security risk that it may represent.
“The Correctional Services Act only grants rights to prisoners under appropriate supervision and when doing so does not hinder their rehabilitation or pose a security risk.”
This view is supported by the Department of Correctional Services.
“In short, that is prohibited, that is not allowed,” department spokesperson Manelisi Wolela told Fin24 when confronted by news of the page’s existence.
Despite that, an active Twitter account named Pollsmoor Prisoners (@PollsmoorBoys) appears to be online and has 225 followers.
“Official Twitter of the Pollsmoor Boys #CantStopUs – Ho$h,” the description says defiantly.
Prisoners with cellphones are able to organise gang activities from inside prison, leading to instability in communities.
“The problem with social media is that it is difficult to supervise and can pose serious security risks. It can be used as a tool to organise criminal activities or mobilise gang members in the outside world. Furthermore, it is doubtful that unconstrained communications on social media would be good for their rehabilitation,” Luck said.
Technology like signal blockers could be used to ensure that even if prisoners somehow managed to acquire mobile technology, it would be useless.
Blockers were the subject of controversy in Parliament recently when members of the opposition accused the government of using the technology during President Jacob Zuma’s chaotic State of the Nation speech.
The technology could be effectively used in high security prisons.
“It is used in jails to block cellphone communication to the outside and will obviously be used where certain high level confidentiality is applicable,” Dawid Jacobs, forensic solution provider with Strategic Investigations and Seminars told Fin24.
Smartphones are considered luxury items, said Luck.
“Criminal justice carries an element aimed to punish criminal behaviour and there is a fine line between prisoner rights and prisoner indulgences. The ability to communicate freely on social media is usually seen as the latter.”
The so-called Waterkloof four were found to have mobile devices in jail. Christoff Becker’s prison privileges were suspended following the revelations.
Luck said that the sanction applied to Becker is an acceptable practice in SA.
“In practice, internal prison rules usually classify smartphones as contraband for this reason and their use (or misuse) by prisoners can be apportioned in aggravation of their sentence.”