Inmates do not have access to the internet. This means that any information given out via the internet will come from a third party. There are several ways in which inmate information is distributed on-line, and each has very distinct reasons for being so. To decide whether inmate information should be given out on the internet, we must first look at how it appears there.
The most obvious source of inmate information on the internet is from the law enforcement agencies and Departments of Correction (DoC). Limited information is provided by many states and countries, usually no more than name, DoC or booking number, and location. Some do provide further details such as photographs and nature of crime or sentence, but not all. There are two reasons why inmate information appears this way; the first is to enable the public to find a particular inmate. Often family members and friends only have vague details of where their loved one might be, and having an on-line resource available as a directory is extremely useful. It also takes away the need to immediately telephone the DoC, thus saving man-hours and staffing costs. There is also a theory that so called “name and shame” techniques will curb further anti-social behavior in the offender. The rising levels of incarceration globally seem to cast doubt on this approach.
However, just as family and friends can find inmates in this way, so too can victims and other interested members of the public. There is a specific web service in America called VINE (Victim Information and Notification Everyday) the national victim notification network. Notifications can be issued either by email or telephone to individual subscribers when an inmate is released or transferred between facilities. Not all states, and not all facilities within states subscribe to this service. Victims often find this information useful, but the service does not screen subscribers to ensure that everyone who signs up for notifications is actually a victim of the inmate. This allows friends and families of the offenders to also use the service and track their loved ones. If an inmate is about to released into the community that they came from originally, and where their victim may still reside, VINE can give a warning to the victim and so prepare them for the possibility of seeing their assailant while in the grocery store or walking down the street.
There are also individuals and organisations who monitor inmates for their own reasons. Some have a pathological desire to be involved with a particular inmate, or group of inmates. Some use particular inmates as examples for their own political agenda, whether it is focused on improving penal conditions or encouraging longer or harsher sentencing. There are many individuals who feel the need to reach out to inmates, particularly in America, as pen-pals. The availability of inmate information on-line is a major resource for these individuals to contact inmates, either through specific pen-pal request adverts or by unsolicited approaches.
Court records are increasingly available on the internet and can contain references to the crimes and the evidence produced during the trial. Some may feel that this in some way glorifies the inmate and gives them their “15 minutes of fame”. These legal transcripts are useful to anyone studying law or the various legal systems in place around the world, and are factual accounts of the proceedings. They are a more reliable source of information than the plethora of media reporting available, because they do not contain any sensationalised details or emotional bias.
With the growth of social networking sites, many inmates now have their own presence on the internet. As has already been stated, inmates do not have direct access to the internet. Friends, family and supporters set up pages on sites such as Facebook and MySpace, with photographs and comments from the inmate. They then pass on through traditional postal services any comments received on the web pages for the inmate to read and respond to. Many people, especially victims of crime and their supporters, find these web pages offensive. They feel that again, it is glorifying the inmate and the crimes, without consideration being given to the victims or their families. However, as the inmate has no direct access to, or control over, the content displayed on the web pages, it would seem extreme to attempt to punish them for it as some would like to do.
Some states in America have passed legislation prohibiting inmates incarcerated there from advertising on-line, or from receiving information that has been sourced from the internet. These laws are being challenged, initially for the same reason as mentioned above: if the inmate has no control over what is displayed on-line in their name, how can they be justifiably punished for it? Many states in America and other countries also have laws that prevent inmates from profiting in any way from their crime, or from soliciting funds from the general public. There are many ways in which an inmate or their supporters can make money on-line, by submitting articles on pay-per-view websites or setting up a blog and asking for “donations” for example. For those who are guilty beyond any doubt, these are often used to highlight failings in the justice systems or the poor conditions of their incarceration. For those who have been wrongly accused or incarcerated, they are a way of provoking and maintaining interest in their plight. Cutting off the availability to one group would necessarily impact on all.
The various ways in which inmate information is given out on the internet have all evolved because of an interest in the perceived “worst” of our society. Whether it be because of a family relationship, a victim relationship, or a transient curiosity, people want and need to be able to access certain information in this now common way. Expectations of individuals have risen over recent years, and owning a computer with internet access is now seen to be as important, if not more so, than owning a television set in many western countries. The kinds of information the public expect to be able to have access to has also increased, and users are more sophisticated in their abilities to hunt down what they want. While DoC may insist that some of the information available compromises security, it could also be said that an intuitive approach to the ways that the information is supplied could actually aid the DoC in their investigations. People are not always careful about what they publish on-line, and investigation agencies can, and do, use this to their advantage.
Limiting the ability to publish information about inmates in the internet may cause more problems than it aims to solve.