Facebook has agreed to work with law enforcement agencies nationwide to remove accounts set up by inmates or posted on their behalf, in part because prisoners are using the social networking site to stalk victims and direct criminal activity, California prison officials said Monday.
It's the latest effort to combat a problem that has grown with the advent of smart phones and social networking sites.
Last year a convicted child molester used a cell phone smuggled into prison to search his victim's Facebook and MySpace web pages, the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation said in announcing the agreement with Facebook. The inmate then sent sketches to the 17-year-old victim's home.
Though he hadn't seen her in at least seven years, the inmate used photos from her social networking pages to accurately draw the clothes she wore and the way she styled her hair, the department said.
"Victims who fought hard to put their offenders behind bars are being re-victimized," said department spokeswoman Dana Toyama. "It's evolving as Facebook has become a huge social networking site and a place for gang members to talk and coordinate inside and outside prison. This is just one example of what they can do."
Inmates are permitted to retain Facebook profiles that were created before they went to prison, according to the department. But Facebook will disable the account if it is used while the inmate is behind bars.
Prison officials said the problem has grown worse because of the growth in smuggled cell phones. Six years ago the department confiscated 261 devices, compared to 10,760 last year and 7,284 in the first half of this year.
Facebook spokesman Andrew Noyes said prison officials' best response is to keep smart phones and other Internet devices out of prisons.
"We will disable accounts reported to us that are violating relevant U.S. laws or regulations or inmate accounts that are updated by someone on the outside," he said in an e-mailed statement. "We will also take appropriate action against anyone who misuses Facebook to threaten or harass."
Noyes said Facebook has been cooperating with law enforcement for some time whenever it is notified of problems, but Toyama said California had previously asked Facebook to remove inmates' pages without success.
"We've really only been successful in taking down one account so far. After this, we're looking to be able to do this more," Toyama said.
She said the Federal Bureau of Prisons first announced Monday that Facebook had agreed to take down any account that prison officials can confirm has been updated while an inmate is in prison. The bureau's National Gang Intelligence Center also reported a growing problem of inmates with active Facebook accounts, Toyama said, but she could not provide a copy of the report because it is a confidential law enforcement bulletin.
The California corrections department's gang and victims' services investigators routinely monitor social networking sites for inmates' postings or communications on their behalf, Toyama said. The department said it has found numerous times when inmates threatened victims or made unwanted sexual advances.
Earlier this year, they reported investigating an inmate they suspected was posting messages to his mother and others from behind bars. They confirmed the inmate had a smuggled cell phone, but Toyama said they have not confirmed that he was using it to update his Facebook account.