In a both fascinating and troubling case, seven inmates in a South Carolina prison who filmed a music video, deemed the first of its kind ever shot in prison (although a scroll through YouTube reveals that may not be the case), have recieved a combined 20 years of solitary confinement for the video.
The video, uploaded in March of 2014, made the rounds on the internet thanks to WorldStarHipHop and, relatively quietly, has racked up over a quarter of a million views on Youtube.
Art imitates life, or in this case, life imitates art.
Recently, Empire tackled this idea, but it’s unknown if we can trace inspiration directly back to this situation in South Carolina. While in prison himself, Lucious Lyon roams around like he owns the place. His only opposing force was a guard played by Skinny Black Ludacris. During his time in jail, he was able to smuggle in recording equipment, made the legendary “Snitch Bitch” record with Petey Pablo (who was already in solitary), and still got caught. For this, he was thrown into confinement.
The inmates obviously got caught and an investigation was underway. Buzzfeed originally reported on the punishments of the people involved, saying that “five of the inmates received 180 days in “disciplinary detention,” while two others received punishments of 270 and 360 days for “creating or assisting with a social media site.”
And that wasn’t all. For possession of contraband (a cell phone) and “security threat group” materials, all seven have a combined 19.75 years (7150 days) of solitary confinement. All their good time served is gone. Their visitation and phone privileges are also gone.
This all raises a much bigger issue: should punishments for a social media violation be reviewed?
Dave Maass, an investigative researcher at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, is someone who has been looking into the matter and also speaking out about making a change.
“When the video went viral the first time, viewers caught a fleeting glimpse of the creative energy that exists behind bars,” Maass told BuzzFeed. “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.”
Earlier in February, some change began to take shape. The South Carolina Department of Corrections announced that 60 days is the maximum in solitary confinement for an infraction. On top of that, each individual social media post would no longer count as a single infraction. An inmate, Tyheem Henry, received more than 37 years of disciplinary detention in October 2013 for making 38 posts on Facebook, hence why they changed the policy.
Even though policies have been updated to reflect lighter punishment, the seven inmates involved in creating and marketing the music video are not exempt from the discipline that the SCDC gave them. Stephanie Givens, a spokesperson for the corrections, said that after reviewing everything, the punishment is appropriate since they consider the seven inmates gang members and a “continued threat to safety.”
The reality is that the first amendment is being broken for these inmates. It’s understandable to be punished for having the cell phone, but not the social media aspect of the crime. As David Fathi, director of the ACLU Prison Project, pointed out, “They’re finding them guilty of a separate violations of creating or assisting with social networking site. That seems like a First Amendment violation on its face.”
David has also been an advocate in trying to get rid of solitary confinement that spans more than 15 days, citing that physical and mental changes are evident one week into isolation. So, it’s hard to imagine what kind of damage a year or more can do. In the case of these inmates, they’re facing more than a year each. Being separated from other human beings for that long of a period of time will have some serious consequences on mental health.
While Empire is made for entertainment, this is the real deal. Lucious Lyon didn’t get 19.75 years added to his sentence. He was thrown in solitary confinement for a quick minute, but not long enough for his mental state to deteriorate.
These seven inmates won’t be out of prison for several years and their families and friends can’t see them due to their visitation rights being stripped. All of this because of one music video.