09/30/2012 10:14 am ET Updated Oct 01, 2012

Heath Lara, Prison Guard, Reinstated After Being Fired For Facebook Friending Inmate Gary Sanders

When Prison Sgt. Heath Lara friended an inmate on Facebook, his supervisors didn't hit the website's famous "like" button.

Lara was fired from the Huntsville Unit of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice in May after officials learned he was Facebook friends with 46-year-old inmate Gary Wayne Sanders.

The sergeant was in violation of the Texas rule that prohibits convicts and guards, as well as parolees and parole officers, from fraternizing -- a policy that can include Facebook interaction, according to the Austin-American Statesman.

Sanders had been sentenced to 72 years in prison for a 1990 murder, and had been assigned to the prison where Lara worked.

Lara appealed his termination, claiming that he and Sanders went to high school together and that he had no idea his old acquaintance was in prison, even though Sanders was in the same facility where Lara worked. Lara also soon discovered that several other prison employees were also Facebook friends with Sanders.

TDCJ reinstated the sergeant about two weeks ago. Jason Clark, TDCJ spokesman, told the American-Statesman that Lara was reinstated because "“additional investigation showed he had no relationship with this inmate." Clark added that since there was no evidence of correspondence between the two, the Facebook friendship did not pose a security threat.

Officials also say that Facebook friendships alone no longer constitute a violation of the fraternization ban.

Nevertheless, Lance Lowry, representative for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) union, says officials have used Facebook friendships as an excuse for firing employees on at least three other occasions, the Associated Press reports.

In an interview with the Houston Press, Lowry cited the example of a prison chaplain who he claims was fired for posting photos of inmates participating in chaplaincy rehabilitation program, even though the photos had previously been cleared by the prison.

Lowry believes officials targeted the chaplain because he had voiced disagreement with certain department policies.



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