It’s no secret that the criminal justice system in the United States is in a dire need of reform. Thousands of people across the country are thrown into jails for not being able to pay fines for minor offenses, while a staggering number of mentally ill offenders spend months, even years, in detention awaiting proper mental healthcare treatment.
Although the tales of injustice and unfair treatment in the U.S. prisons are nothing new, a recently surfaced report from a South Carolina correctional facility highlights just how broken the system is now.
Seven inmates in the Kershaw Correctional Institution were sentenced a combined total of nearly 20 years of solitary confinement for making a rap music video and posting it on video blog WorldStarHipHop.
The male inmates, who are serving time for a variety of serious crimes, such as armed robbery, burglary, and voluntary manslaughter, filmed the six-minute footage on a cell phone behind bars last year. The South Carolina Department of Corrections launched an investigation after the rap video went viral on social media, according to public records obtained by Dave Maass, an investigative researcher at the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
“When the video went viral the first time, viewers caught a fleeting glimpse of the creative energy that exists behind bars,” Maass told BuzzFeed News. “Now that we know how dearly each inmate paid for their participation, the video takes on all new significance. People in this country are still sacrificing their freedom and well-being for expression.”
Five of the inmates received 180 days in “disciplinary detention,” while rest of the two received sentences of 270 and 360 days, for “creating or assisting with a social media site.” The additional punishments for “security threat group” (gang-related) materials, and possessing a contraband cell phone added up to a combined 7150 days, or 19.75 years, in combined solitary confinement.
The authorities also reportedly took away the inmates’ privileges, including visitation hours, canteen, phone and good time accrued.
While the prisoners’ punishments seem way too extreme, a spokesperson for the SCDC claims the sentences were reviewed and found to be appropriate.
“Their placement is not just tied to that rap video,” spokeswoman Stephanie Givens told BuzzFeed News. “It’s the fact that they are gang members and a continued threat to safety.”
The officials said the inmates were guilty of creating or assisting with a social network and possessing contraband. The public documents further state that the video from WorldStarHipHop was also used as evidence in the investigation. The footage was shot on March 18, 2014,
“They’re finding them guilty of separate violations of creating or assisting with social networking site,” said David Fathi, the director of the ACLU’s National Prison Project. “That seems like a First Amendment violation on its face.”
He further said that although inmates can be punished for possessing contraband materials and officials can limit inmates' speech for security purposes, these punishments are extremely disturbing.
“The more we learn about solitary confinement, the more we know how profoundly damaging it is to physical and mental health,” Fathi added. “We know there are measurable changes in the brain after seven days in isolation. A year or six months is grossly excessive.”
In all fairness, a criminal can use a cell phone to harm someone from behind the bars, but sentencing someone 1,000 days in confinement for posting pure speech on the Internet seems just too barbaric.