I sat there, staring at an inbox that now read zero. Just hours ago, it had the number nine, all drafts of pieces I had crafted, refined, and stored on an e-messaging service provided to me and other people incarcerated in the Washington Department of Corrections (DOC). Now, all of my work—easily over a hundred hours spent on stories that I planned to send off to editors in hopes of getting published—was just gone.
Last week, people in prisons across Washington awoke to find that Securus, the controversial prison telecoms giant, had deleted all draft messages from our email inboxes without warning. This was the third time this had happened to us in a year. It was a crushing realization for many, but perhaps especially for writers like me, who have no choice but to use that drafts inbox as a repository for our work. Unlike most computers or smartphones, the Securus tablets DOC provides do not allow users to save text files outside of the e-messaging app. The drafts folder is our hard drive, the only place we can save articles, essays, poems, novels, and other writing we may one day hope to share with the world.
The pain of losing entire drafts and having to start all over again is bad enough. But for those of us in prison who have turned to writing as both a career and a form of therapy, the loss is only compounded.
“I feel devastated, and it makes it hard to continue writing,” Darrell Jackson, one of my fellow writers, told me last week. “Here I am writing deep pieces about trauma and structural racism, and my work just keeps disappearing, only for me to have to rewrite the piece and process all that trauma again and again.”
According to representatives for Securus and DOC, a technical error during a system update caused the deletion of the drafts.
“Inadvertently, during the state account’s reconfiguring process, the default setting of ‘zero draft email’ was chosen,” a DOC spokesperson told The Appeal. “This was simply a technical/technician mistake and once realized, it was corrected.”
While the ability to save drafts was restored, the damage was already done. Securus told The Appeal that the deleted drafts were not recoverable. “The e-message draft option is not intended for long term storage,” a Securus spokesperson added in an email to The Appeal.
But this is just one of many challenges incarcerated journalists face in providing content to the public. Being a writer inside prison isn’t for the faint of heart.
The risk of retaliation or blowback is always present, especially when the administration starts to notice your writing. The one thing they hate most is to be held accountable for the harm and damage they cause. For far too long, state prison systems have been left to their own devices to play in the shadows. If the idea of reporting from behind enemy lines isn’t enough to deter incarcerated writers, the infuriating logistical hurdles might seal the deal.
Securus’s tablets and e-messaging app are the only tools we have for sharing our work with the outside world, but they lack basic capabilities that most writers take for granted. We can’t access Google or Wikipedia—and what’s this about ChatGPT? We can’t even copy and paste text, or as this episode reminds us, save text files to protect them from arbitrary deletion. Other critical features come with a hefty price tag. Sending a message—a basic email—requires a “stamp,” which Securus sells for between $0.17 and $0.33 apiece. We often have to send our drafts across multiple messages due to the app’s character limits.
These limitations make it even more difficult for us to replace the work we lose when Securus deletes our drafts. Kevin Light-Roth, who’s incarcerated with me at the Washington Corrections Center, used his drafts folder to save living versions of pieces he’s working on for outside publications. This folder allows us to make minor edits to documents so we can respond to suggestions from editors without having to rewrite the entire rest of the story. The deletion of his drafts means he will have to reproduce all of his copy from scratch.
“When the editor wants a line here changed or a line there moved, I will have to write out what the editor wants by hand, then go into my sent mail, scroll through hundreds of emails to find where I first sent the piece out, copy that down by hand, make the changes, then type the whole thing with my thumbs again,” Light-Roth said. “It’s hours of work every time.”
As compensation for the lost drafts, Securus provided two free stamps to prisoners affected by the system update, a DOC spokesperson told The Appeal. But for writers like Antoine Davis, who lost 16 drafts, including entire chapters of his book manuscript, articles, and outlines for civic programs, this restitution felt like a “slap in the face.”
“Less than fifty cents for over a hundred hours of my work,” Davis said. “We pay Securus extortionate rates, only to receive the worst possible service ever.”
Under its contract with Washington’s DOC, Securus may be obligated to do more to address the issue. The agreement includes minimum performance requirements that carry monetary penalties if Securus fails to meet them. For example, DOC can fine Securus $125 for every “communications record” the company loses. The contract also requires Securus to compensate incarcerated users for lost messages at a minimum rate of two stamps per deleted message.
It’s unclear whether these requirements apply to draft messages. DOC told The Appeal that it had forwarded questions about the contract provisions to the agency’s “subject matter experts,” but did not provide a response before this story was published.
Data loss is always a risk in the era of digital publishing, whether at the hands of a power outage, computer virus, or corrupted file.
“Like all technology, our services are not immune to disruption,” a spokesperson for Securus told The Appeal.
But unlike consumers on the outside, incarcerated people in Washington don’t have the luxury of responding to regular mishaps by seeking out a more reliable product.
In 2021, incarcerated writers across the country lost their drafts when JPay, the predecessor of Securus’s e-messaging app, performed a similar system update. The next year, prisoners in California lost both drafts and saved messages from friends and family when the state prison system transitioned from JPay to a new vendor. It took three months for the new provider, ViaPath, to restore email service.
When The Appeal asked Securus and Washington DOC what incarcerated writers should do to ensure they don’t lose their work in the future, a DOC spokesperson directed questions to Securus, noting that “it’s specific to their platform and its use.” Securus did not offer specific recommendations but said it would “work with WADOC to consider alternative options to support freestyle writing.”
To writers like Raymond Williams, who are once again being forced to completely rebuild their portfolios after being put through a familiar cycle, the message is already clear.
“Losing my drafts for the third time this year is a reminder that I am not a person in the eyes of Securus and the Washington Department of Corrections,” Williams said.