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How Prison Writers Struggle to Be Heard

Sky-high costs, fear of retaliation, and isolation create roadblocks for incarcerated people to join conversations about reform.

A prison phone
Photo: Rodnae Productions | Pexel

This piece is published in collaboration with the Empowerment Avenue Writer’s Cohort, a project of Prison Renaissance that works to support the hiring and payment of incarcerated people for journalism and creative work.

When a person goes to prison, some of their constitutional rights vanish. But their right to free speech remains intact.

Many incarcerated people are eager to exercise that right and contribute to the conversations in our communities around racial inequality, criminal justice reform, conditions of confinement, and numerous other issues. After all, who better to comment on the issues that affect us—and our loved ones—than us?

Like us, a small percentage of the over 2 million incarcerated individuals in the U.S. are finding a voice by publishing national and local articles, writing blogs, and sitting for interviews with other journalists across the country.

But there are tremendous hurdles to being heard. Slowly and reluctantly, the prison system has allowed some forms of technology for those who are incarcerated. But exceedingly high costs, isolation, restrictive working conditions, and fear of censorship render a prisoner’s right to free speech extremely fragile and often impossible to exercise. And any time a citizen’s rights are infringed upon, we as a society become less free.

Having a voice is expensive.

Most people in prison pay for virtually every form of communication they have access to.

For those lucky enough to have email, there is a cost connected to each correspondence. Where we are, in Washington state, people in prison can use the technology service JPay to send monitored emails and transfer money. Qualifying prisoners can purchase a personal JPay tablet at about $139, and prisoners must purchase “e-stamps” to send messages. Stamps cost 17 to 33 cents each, though the price can be higher in other states.

This may not sound like much, but if you consider the fact that most prisoners in Washington state make only 42 cents per hour at prison jobs, sending a message home through JPay can represent nearly 40 percent of an hour’s labor. For a person on the streets making $20 an hour, that would be the equivalent of $8 each time they sent an email or text. The tablet is the equivalent of over 330 hours of prison labor.

Phone calls are even worse. A local 20-minute phone call from a prison in Washington state costs around $2.50 or nearly six hours of prison labor, though excessive call costs are a national issue. Last year, a federal judge in New Jersey approved a $25 million settlement after prisoners in the state sued GTL, a phone service provider, for inflated costs.

For prisoners who are dependent on communicating using paper or a typewriter, costs can get outrageously high. Those confined in Washington are only allowed to purchase from one vendor, Union Supply, when ordering supplies, meaning they have no choice over what they pay. A typewriter from Union Supply costs over $300 and requires a $15 deposit. Supporting supplies such as correctable ribbons are $12.95 each; correction tape is $17.55 for a six-pack, and a packet of 100 sheets of typing paper is $1.71. Getting set up with a typewriter and supplies to write requires a prisoner to spend around $350 or 833 hours of prison labor. If a person in prison used a ribbon, one correction tape, and a packet of paper each month, they would need $17.58 every month. That is a third of a prisoner’s monthly paycheck in Washington state.

The outrageous cost of being heard has a chilling effect. People simply can’t afford to speak. They are silenced through overpriced, unobtainable, outdated technology.

People who speak up can be targeted for retaliation.

Prisoners who speak out publicly about system injustices often place themselves in danger by doing so.

Corrections officials have labeled prisoners who find success as writers and advocates as troublemakers or threat risks. As a result, prison writers may find that their communications are given a higher level of censorship, more often rejected by mailroom staff, and sometimes delayed. Corrections officials have also attempted to pit prisoners against one another, threatening to take away computer privileges for a whole group because of one person’s writings or communications.

If the department isn’t successful in suppressing prisoners’ voices, officials may claim that prisoners’ accounts are false. And too often, outlets—fearing litigation perhaps—will accept and print those claims and comments, regardless of their veracity.

Prison writers have to weigh their personal safety and freedoms against getting their message out. They must brave everything to speak for those who often find themselves without a voice.

Work product can disappear.

All aspects of a prisoner’s personal property, including writings, are subject to search and confiscation at any time. Prison writers work with this awareness, and veterans of the system handwrite backups and painstakingly rework it all if any writing is lost or stolen.

When work is completed, it must clear the gauntlet of prison mailrooms without being denied. If a prisoner’s work is taken or destroyed, they have no way of proving it ever existed. To get it returned, prison writers are at the mercy of the very people they may be writing about.

Prisoners also have extremely limited means to back up their data and work product, and are forbidden from having any type of electronic storage. In August, a JPay update erased large portions of tablet user data, including all drafts and thus hundreds of hours of work. John J. Lennon, a prolific prison journalist incarcerated in a New York state prison, lost everything upon updating his player. Though the files have since been restored, “it was like my life stopped,” he said. Joshua Rodriguez, a prison poet incarcerated in Washington state, initially lost over 400 poems and pieces of spoken word he had been working on. “Everything just vanished. I was devastated, I put my heart into the pieces I write, sharing deep pieces of my trauma from my life and childhood,” he said.

Although JPay eventually restored some content and features weeks later, and insisted that the disruption was inadvertent, it’s unclear what, if anything, would have happened without immense pressure from incarcerated journalists, free-world journalists, and advocates who sounded off about the system issues.

Sadly, this is not an isolated incident, and prison journalists regularly deal with disruptions in their work and threats to their work product.

System-impacted people are isolated from each other.

Prisoners are barred from contact with prisoners in other institutions. Though there are some legitimate arguments for this policy, the effect of this isolation means that prisoners have enormous difficulty participating in discussions that are integral to modern life.

Most incarcerated people cannot access the blogs, forums, and chat rooms available to those on the streets without being at risk of violating corrections policies. This forces prison journalists to be limited to the small bubble they live in for input. Some people may overcome this with help from loved ones or other support networks, acting as surrogates, but it is still a serious hurdle and strain on our networks and makes doing important work vastly more difficult.

Additionally, when a person leaves prison, they are banned for up to two years from contacting prisoners—the people that they built a community with for the last several years, and in some cases decades.

Potential problems with intra-prison communication could still be avoided with much less restrictive measures, ones that allow incarcerated individuals to constructively work together in bettering their conditions.

Already, change is coming to the prison system, and prison journalists and activists are helping to drive the narratives for that change. The public is eager to hear from people who are incarcerated, seeking transparency around solitary confinement, health risks, and other abuses that have occurred for years in the shadows. And legislators and state officials are now looking to us to lead the discussions around prisons and jails, calling on incarcerated people to testify about their experience.

But even then, obstacles remain. In September, Washington State Supreme Court Chief Justice Steven González requested that one of us participate in its Race and Criminal Justice Task Force panel, writing in a letter to the Department of Corrections that it was “critical to include in this discussion someone who is incarcerated.” But the DOC denied the request, citing “the recent rise in COVID-19 cases and the resulting intense impact on prison staffing,” according to a letter sent to the chief justice.

We cannot let the impediments to communication while incarcerated deter us from having a voice and maintaining our First Amendment right. The public arguably knows more today than ever before about the prison system and its conditions, largely because of voices from inside. But those leading the charge and speaking out do so at considerable risk.