Some employees of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice are accusing wardens of disciplining, and in some cases firing, them for having Facebook friends with criminal records.
Duane Stuart, who runs a private TDCJ employee forum, thebackgate.org, tells Hair Balls that wardens regularly inspect employees' profiles, asking employees for their passwords if their profiles are set to private.
Stuart and Lance Lowry, a representative of the employees' union, believe TDCJ is using Facebook to intimidate employees who have been critical of it in the past.
In an e-mail to Senator John Whitmire, chair of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, Lowry accuses TDCJ officials of censoring "employee organizing activities" and "prohibiting them from networking with one another on Facebook" and other social media.
"The agency has terminated several employees for Facebook activities, under the [excuse] they are jeopardizing the security of the institution," Lowry claims in the e-mail, sent Tuesday.
Department spokesman Jason Clark told Hair Balls that officials are not asking for passwords, and are not even asking employees to disclose any online friendships with former offenders or parolees.
"I'm not certain where that's coming from..." he tells Hair Balls. He did say that officials have asked employees to be more selective in choosing Facebook friends.
"Sometimes those relationships, whether they be on purpose or inadvertently, can jeopardize -- or has the potential to jeopardize -- the security of the agency, or compromise the effectiveness of the employee," he says.
But Stuart tells Hair Balls in an e-mail that he witnessed a warden monitor an employee's Facebook profile, "looking for information on possible violations." He claims that wardens "browse the open accounts looking at pictures, an employee's friends list or any indication of the employee doing drugs, etc., or being involved in criminal acts. If they cannot get in due to you having your account password protected, they will ask you for it. If you waiver on handing it over and they feel you are hiding something, they will then demand it."
Failure to comply will result in disciplinary actions, Stuart claims.
He says employees are also being disciplined for having Facebook friends with criminal records they weren't even aware of.
"We see upwards of 25-30 of these e-mails on a daily basis," he writes.
He claims this also includes friends of friends, explaining that one employee's wife (who was on his friends list) had a friend who was once incarcerated in TDCJ. (In that case, Stuart claims, the employee only received a scolding.)
Many employees are now posting disclaimers, asking any friends with TDCJ records to remove themselves. But if a friend doesn't abide, the employee is still on the hook, Stuart says. Stuart also says TDCJ's media office ignored his request, two weeks ago, for a statement on the social media issue. Clark tells Hair Balls that an employee's social media profile is only an issue if that person is already the subject of an investigation; TDCJ has long prohibited relationships between employees and offenders.
"For example, an offender gets out from a particular facility. Shortly thereafter, one of the correctional officers or staff there...friends that person on Facebook or starts corresponding back and forth with that person, that...would be an issue," Clark says. In these types of cases, officials are usually tipped off by intelligence officers at each unit, he explains, and, if necessary, officials would check the suspected employee's online profiles. But the investigation wouldn't begin with monitoring profiles.
However, according to Lowry, at least one employee has been fired for less. He says a prison chaplain was recently terminated after posting pics of inmates participating in a chaplaincy (rehabilitation) program, even though the pics had already been cleared. He believes the chaplain was targeted because he's "rocked the boat" by openly disagreeing with certain TDCJ policies.
Lowry also says the unwritten Facebook policy runs counter to the fact that "there are plenty of employees who have family members who are incarcerated. This is in no way a danger to the institution." He says he plans to bring these concerns to the Texas Sunset Advisory Commission next month.
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For Lowry, the bottom line is that TDCJ officials "believe they own the employees on- and off-duty."
We'll update once we hear more.