Crossing the electronic prison firewall

by Ann Garrison

San-Quentin-prisoners-taking-computer-coding-class-Code-7370-from-SF-nonprofit-The-Last-Mile-2014-by-KPIX5-300x150, Crossing the electronic prison firewall, Abolition Now!
According to a 2014 story in Huffington Post and KPIX News, 18 men at San Quentin State Prison were taking Code 7370, a computer coding class. The program, “created by San Francisco nonprofit The Last Mile, aims to curb the recidivism rates of its students by giving them career skills that will make them more valuable in a 21st-century workforce.” They can learn to code, but they still have no access to the internet. – Photo: KPIX5

Six California prisoners wrote to me in 2015 to ask about the Hepatitis C cure, shortly after the San Francisco Bay View newspaper published my interview with activist attorney Peter Erlinder titled “US prisoners sue for constitutional right to lifesaving Hep C cure.” They’d been able to read it because the Bay View sends a print edition to prisons all over the country every month. I tried and failed to answer those letters and I’ve felt bad about it ever since.

How could I ‘fail’ to write a letter? How could it be so hard?

I’m embarrassed to admit to this degree of disorganization, but most of us have our flaws. I once kept stamps and envelopes in a drawer and a working printer on my desk, but that was a long time ago. Now I can’t think of when I’m required to mail anything but taxes. My desk is now my laptop computer, my files are all digital, and it’s difficult for me to lay hands on all the elements required to get a paper letter off in the same moment.

I wrote letters to the prisoners who wrote to me about the Hep C cure, then printed them up in the newsroom of KPFA Radio-Berkeley, where I work on a newscast once a week. Then I got home and found I didn’t have stamps or envelopes, so I put it on my list to buy them, but by the time I had, I’d lost the letters and the prison addresses with them. I think they were tucked inside the pocket of a laptop computer sleeve that I lost and never could find.

So to any of those who wrote to me and may now be reading this, I apologize. Like other activist journalists, I try to respond to a lot of people in urgent circumstances, but I run out of time and energy and can’t do it all.

I’m glad that others have managed to stay on the story of prisoners fighting for the Hep C cure, and I just wrote to Peter Erlinder to ask whether he has any recent news. I imagine that anyone reading this knows that a federal judge ordered the Pennsylvania state Department of Corrections to give the cure to Mumia Abu Jamal at the end of March, and that he is now Hep C free.

US prisoners have little or no Web access

My failure to respond to those letters made me acutely aware of how extremely, cruelly isolated U.S. prisoners are in the age of digital communication when so much of the world is simply out of the habit of communicating via the post office, a.k.a. snail mail, and information is constantly zinging around the world in a matter of seconds on the World Wide Web. I take particular interest in the African Great Lakes Region, and I can communicate with friends there or in the diaspora in a matter of seconds as well.

I can make new contacts just as swiftly, often after we’ve had an introduction in public discussions on social media. If they aren’t online at the time, I can send a text, voice or video message using e-mail, social networks like Facebook and Twitter, or various Web voice and video conferencing tools. I would have swiftly responded to all the prisoners who wrote to me about the Hep C cure if I’d been able to send electronic mail.

Imagining life inside a prison, outside the World Wide Web

I’ve never been inside a prison, but I’ve heard of prison libraries, so I’ve imagined that they include computer stations with some sort of limited, monitored Web access that includes e-mail. However, I just read “A Day in the Life of a Prison Librarian” by Andrew Hart and it didn’t say a word about Web access, even though the essay itself was published by “Public Libraries Online.” So I looked up “Internet in prisons“ in the Wikipedia, once again on the Web that U.S. prisoners have little or no access to, and this is some of what I found:

“In the United States the Federal Bureau of Prisons, an agency of the U.S. Department of Justice, put into place the Trust Fund Limited Inmate Computer System (TRULINCS) on Feb. 19, 2009. This allows federal inmates access to electronic messaging through e-mails. The message must be text only and must be conducted in a secure manner between inmate and the public. Messages are subject to monitoring. Currently all institutions operated by the Bureau of Prisons have TRULINCS. However outside of the TRULINCS program, nearly all states prohibit Internet use by inmates, severely limiting technology-based access to educational opportunities.”

That last statement seemed both sad and ambiguous, so I clicked on “TRULINCS,” then on “The Price of Communicating from Behind Bars” on another website called “Public Knowledge,” which “promotes freedom of expression, an open internet, and access to affordable communications tools and creative works.” I concluded that TRULINCS is strictly for sending e-mail to and from public federal prisons and that prisoners pay five cents a minute to use it.

The “Public Knowledge” page quoted a page on the “Prison Policy Initiative” website, which said that “approximately 6.1 percent of state prisoners are held in privately run prisons, along with 11.9 percent of federal prisoners.” At that point I had to exercise enough discipline to avoid the disorientation of getting “lost in hyperspace” by clicking on one link after another, and noted that it’s not a discipline that prisoners have a chance to develop. How does a prisoner who has never had Web access experience it upon release?

You can study anything and even earn degrees on the Web now, but apparently not in U.S. prison libraries. You can keep up with world events and read electronic books. What could be more essential to prisoners’ sanity and/or preparation to re-enter the world outside? I recently learned that U.S. prisons will not accept books mailed to prisoners unless they’re mailed directly from a publisher or bookseller.

You can study anything and even earn degrees on the Web now, but apparently not in U.S. prison libraries. You can keep up with world events and read electronic books. What could be more essential to prisoners’ sanity and/or preparation to re-enter the world outside?

The same entry also said that in Antwerp, Belgium, each prison cell has a computer, mouse, keyboard and monitor (screen) with full access to the internet via a service called PrisonCloud. In less than a second, I opened the PrisonCloud website.

Web access, like basketball, can make a second seem like a long time. A player can make a winning basket with a second on the clock if he can get the ball out of his hands in that much time, and I can get to a wealth of information just as quickly.

In another second, I got to the April 21, 2016, BBC video report, “The PrisonCloud system is a world first.” This is “a NATO-certified platform and enables full control and monitoring of all activities on it in real time,” but if Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald are to be believed, that’s what we all have now. I was tempted to search the Web to see whether they’d ever mentioned NATO certification, but I reminded myself of a deadline for submitting this piece and avoided getting lost in hyperspace.

JPay, JMail and LetterQuick

When Romaine “Chip” Fitzgerald, one of the last 16 Black Panthers behind bars, wrote to me about several things I’d written for the Bay View, I was determined to get a letter off in return this time. I talked to Bay View editor Mary Ratcliff about my incompetence with postal mail and she suggested trying J-Pay, an electronic service for sending money to prisoners that also sends mail. I found, however, that some California prisons will print and deliver JPay mail, but not CSP-Los Angeles County, the prison holding Chip Fitzgerald.

Delivering e-mail to prisons really should not be much more difficult than sorting the mail in the mail room. What would it cost? A computer, nothing fancy, just one that could receive e-mail. And a printer, again nothing fancy, just one that could print black and white text. The capacity to print color pictures would be a plus. Guards are going to open and read all the mail before delivering it to prisoners anyway, so this would actually save them a step.

Delivering e-mail to prisons really should not be much more difficult than sorting the mail in the mail room. What would it cost?

Mary Ratcliff referred me to a prison activist who told me about a service called LetterQuick, which is available only in California. I was able to send Chip an e-mail via LetterQuick, which printed, stamped and mailed it for no more than it would have cost me to do it myself.

Take down the electronic prison firewall

Immediate challenge met, but now I’m aware of the far greater challenge of connecting prisoners to the Internet. The Wikipedia entry on “Internet in prisons” included this paragraph without attribution:

“Due to the reliance on the internet in society, newly sentenced inmates have already developed a dependency on the Internet. The restriction of the Internet in the inmates’ daily lives would constitute a major setback in their daily functionings. The sudden removal of a major part in their lives would debilitate their motivation for rehabilitation. Inmates sentenced to a longer duration would become technologically impaired when released into a society that is increasingly becoming dependent on the internet. The institution needs to prepare the inmate for reintroduction into the outside society, and doing so necessitates familiarity with the internet.”

Amen. Take down the electronic prison firewall.

Ann Garrison is an independent journalist based in the San Francisco Bay Area. In 2014, she received the Victoire Ingabire Umuhoza Democracy and Peace Prize for her reporting on conflict in the African Great Lakes region. She can be reached at