By Deputy Warden Patrick Branson
The term technology today is so widely accepted that we actually have divisions intended to separate one form from another. We have high tech, low tech, green technology, brown technology, space technology, hypertechnology, nanotechnology and finally, we even have the term “tech factor” to describe the level of technology. In the tech factor scale you would probably find email at the lowest level.
Let’s be real here, even our parents have been emailing family and friends for years. However, the very minute you start to talk about email for inmates the faces in the room turn sour and the mood turns to panic. Just for clarification sake, I don’t like the term email in every application of electronic mail in regards to inmates. The only true email application here is using kiosks for the delivery of this technology to inmates. The most widely used application today is the print and scan method; the planned application for both the North Dakota State Penitentiary and the James River Correctional Center. This application does not allow an inmate access to a key board, computer screen or send or receive anything electronically. In this process the inmate receives the mail on printed paper and sends a response in handwritten form on paper provided by the vendor and scanned by staff. We do plan to use kiosks at the Missouri River Correctional Center as our pilot project to learn more about kiosks and their place in our corrections environment.
Background and Security
How I got to the point of being an advocate of electronic mail for inmates has everything to do with my history and experience with mail in the maximum-security setting. For the past seven years as Deputy Warden of Operations there was very little left to the imagination in regards to my experience screening mail. My office shares a wall with the facilities mail room and all the screening takes place adjacent to me in the next office shared by two administrative services staff. Even though my duties as administrative oversight of this process pales in comparison to the volume of mail screened by these two administrative services staff, it would still take me hours to list all the examples I could recall of how contaminated the mail is entering correctional facilities today. The list would include narcotic infused pages and cards, pages stained with body fluids and perfumes, powders, herbs, minerals, oils and other items poured into envelopes and many other items; half of which I could not remember if I tried. It would be virtually impossible to begin to identify the vast majority of unknown substances sent through the mail so looking for a totally sanitary and safe alternative is exactly what brought us to this technology. This was by no means an accident.
There is an old saying in this business; “always resolve all issues in your favor.” I am very fortunate to serve on one National Institute of Justice (NIJ) sponsored advisory board (RULETC) and one NIJ sponsored Technology Working Group and I have a vast network of the best technological minds in the corrections profession today just an email away. The general consensus with most of these technology specialists in regards to solving most of the mail issues in corrections today is the electronic mail systems for inmates if applied properly. It is in our best interest to explore our options to clean up the mail screening process and provide safer and more secure methods for both staff and inmates. There are a handful of states currently using an inmate electronic mail service provider and equally as many other states in the implementation process at this time. One of the largest correctional systems in the US, the Federal Bureau of Prisons, is currently piloting the electronic mail delivery technology in 20 of their facilities. They are interested in this technology for all the same reasons and the goals are to cut down on the amount of paper mail and the associated contraband that flows through their prisons (LRP Publications 2008). It is obvious this is a shared problem in the state prison systems, as well as the federal system.
Cost and How it Works
I have addressed some of what we have to gain with this new technology in our prisons but is there a gain for the inmates and their families? The fact is the inmates and their families and friends have the most to gain. Inmate families and friends often bear most of the cost and burden of communication with the offenders in the prison system. In many cases family and friends send money to offenders for phone calls, they always drive or travel to the facilities for visits (many times hundreds of miles) and they pay a minimum of 42 cents to send in a letter through the mail. With the new electronic mail service families and friends can purchase 10 stamps for $3.50 (.35 per stamp), 20 stamps for $6.00 (.30 cents per stamp) or 40 stamps for $10.00 (.25 cents per stamp). The family or friend will also have a much greater chance the offender will respond back in a two-way transaction because the return sheet is pre programmed to go back to the person sending the mail. They don’t have this level of confidence if they send the offender money with hope that the offender purchases US Postage and eventually writes a letter. That money often is spent on other items in the commissary. As you can see, in a two-way transaction using stamps purchased for the $10 amount through electronic mail the family can save 34 cents. When you look at the volume of mail some family members send these offenders there would be a huge savings over a year.
Creating an Account and Features The process for family and friends to sign up for this service is simple. However, a home or work computer would provide the most convenience but a public access computer such as a public library computer would work as well. They simply go to www.jpay.com and follow the instructions for email for offenders. A family member or friend must set up an account in any event and, in the application of kiosk delivery, an inmate is still restricted because the kiosk will not give them access to the Internet. Once an account is set up the inmate is simply in a reactive role allowing them to respond either by handwritten and scanning method or responding to an email after receiving a letter on the kiosk. An offender using a kiosk can initiate a letter to a family or friend if the account they use has ample funds and the only person they can write to is the person holding the account with the service provider. This prevents inmates from using the electronic mail service with anyone other than the person holding the account. The same control exists with electronic letters delivered through the print and scan method, as the offender receives a blank page along with their printed hardcopy letter with a barcode at the top of the page. The barcode routes the handwritten response upon scanning back to the person holding the account through the service provider. Pictures can be sent for the cost of a stamp per each picture. This is where the home or work computer works best because the family or friend can send pictures from their personal files.
The electronic mail system for offenders is a secure system with clear benefits for both the offender and the correctional agency. There are numerous security tools built into the program for the correctional staff. The goal with this technology is to increase the communication and frequency of contacts between the offender, family and friends by reducing the cost of mail, while providing increased security and safety to the facility staff. This is clearly a win-win solution to an age-old problem that has frustrated correctional mail room staff for years. My prediction is electronic mail will have the same impact on corrections as it has on society in general and stamps will eventually become a thing of the past. Go to www.jpay.com and follow the instructions for email for offenders.