These days, just about everyone is getting up-to-the-minute notifications from their smartphones, tablets, and desktop computers about what people they know are doing, to the point where it gets annoying. It's just the way the world works now. You don't have to see anybody face to-face; everything is virtual and instantaneous. Friend, follow, like, post, comment, tweet, status update, check in, upload a photo—social media seems to compromise the majority of our interactions these days.
Inside the belly of America's prison-industrial complex it's harder for inmates to live online the same way—especially since they're not allowed to have cell phones—but in practice, they're all over social media.
Recently, I called an inmate in the California state prison system to get the low-down on the availability of smartphones in prison, what they're used for, and how much they cost. My source told me that prisoners are posting to Facebook, uploading videos and photos to Instagram, and tweeting directly from their cell blocks. There have been plenty of reports about this trend, but most of them have centered around the use of contraband and illegal cell phones and the prison authorities' attempts to combat their introduction and use.
But as a former prisoner I know that you don't need a cell phone to gain access to social media. I began my career as a writer from inside, enjoying all the social media platforms available to people on the outside. With the growth of the internet, the world has opened up, even to prisoners. The technological advances we take for granted have made their way into the darkest corners of America. With most prisoners enjoying access (of a sort) to email these days, it's made it that much easier for them to get on social media.
"I have been incarcerated for the past 12 and a half years for bank robbery, a crime that I committed when I was 23 years old," says John "Judge" Broman, a 35-year-old from Pittsburgh serving an 18-year sentence at USP Hazelton in West Virginia. "Coming of age in the penitentiary caused me to lose touch with pretty much everyone I ever knew while I was free."
Things changed a few years back when the Bureau of Prisons introduced the Trust Fund Limited Inmate Computer System (TRULINCS), an email service for prisoners. Electronic messaging has become a standard form of communication within most American homes and businesses, and it can now be used to help inmates stay connected to their families. TRULINCS allows messages to be exchanged between inmates and the general public in a secure manner. Maintaining family ties can improve the likelihood of a successful reentry into the community, thus reducing the potential for recidivism.
That's the intent, anyway, but in truth, the emergence of social media has enabled prisoners to make minute-by-minute updates from the cell block and reconnect with the world that they left behind. Before TRULINCS, prisoners could only communicate with the outside world through letters. I did this for years, because even though I was communicating by email, all my messages were coming in as hard copies: I would answer the email and send it back out to my wife, who would send the reply back to the sender. She would just print out the email and forward it to me. This is how I started my writing career from prison.
"Mail call is either the highlight or low point of every day for convicts," Judge says. "A constant reminder that you're either loved out there, or forgotten. I'm lucky enough to have a family that helps me communicate with people in the free world. Creating a Facebook page brought all types of people back into my life that thought I was dead and buried under the prison. It also brought me in touch with people I never knew before."
But how do prisoners access social media platforms like Facebook? Alex "Boudreaux" Cook, a 28-year-old from Memphis who has served five years of a ten-year sentence for manufacturing marijuana, tells me, "My mom forwards my emails and I send her my artwork and she takes pictures and posts them for me. When people comment on my art or just my page, she forwards the messages for me. It helps me let my friends and family see what I am up to and know that I'm doing something productive."
Using Facebook through TRULINCS circumvents the prison mailroom completely. All over Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, prisoners are posting photos of themselves straight from the penitentiary, with all their tattoos and gang affiliations displayed for the world to see. People in the real world are friending and following them, liking their posts and leaving comments, creating feedback and a dialogue with those trapped in the netherworld of corruption and violence. But not all prisoners are lucky enough to have a family member to act as proxy for their Facebook page and even fewer have enough money or underworld clout to obtain a contraband smartphone. So what do they do if they want to keep in touch with the world through social media?
"Being a federal inmate, it can often be difficult to hold down a social media page like Facebook, MySpace, etc." Jesse Jongeward, a 42-year-old from Minneapolis who has been in eight and a half years on an 11-and-a-half-year sentence for conspiracy to distribute narcotics, says. "You have to find a provider that is going to get you your messages and post your pictures and text accordingly. I dealt with a company called voiceforinmates.com for three years and I was rarely satisfied with their performance. I paid $100 a year to get my messages and have my photos and updates posted, but it was rarely done. The whole experience stressed me out, but in the end it was cool to access some of my old classmates, musician buddies, and friends I haven't talked to in a while. Plus it gave me a sense of still being out there in the mix of the free world."
That is what social media is all about—getting out there and connecting with old friends and making new ones. I know in my case I thrived as I made connections and got my work published. It made me feel like I was living and transcending the mundane nature of prison life. But if TRULINCS has been a boon to prisoners, companies like Voice for Inmates have used it as an opportunity to exploit those trapped behind the fences of our nation's correctional facilities. Without a proxy to administer the social media pages or a contraband cell phone to do it themselves, prisoners are bereft of the opportunity to connect. Prisoners will use anyone, even ex-wives or girlfriends, to set up their pages, even if that can cause trouble in their personal lives.
"It would be nice if I had a woman who didn't have ulterior motives to keep me connected to the world, but I don't, so I use what I got," says Kevin Smith, a 48-year-old convict from Fort Worth, Texas, who is finishing up a 15-year sentence for a gun charge. "In a perfect world, I would have my Facebook page showcase some of my original songs and push my friends to a website I have created just for that. I have been gone over a decade and when I was out there, MySpace was the leading site. Twitter, Facebook and the others showed up later. It would be nice to be able to access our own account from here, but we are limited due to the sex offenders wanting to gain access and manipulate to their own sick desires. But I am still happy to have this expensive, slow, and monitored texting service which they refer to as emails."
For me and a lot of other prisoners, TRULINCS was a tremendous resource. Used in the right way and with the right people helping, a lot can be accomplished. Since the whole world is digital and mobile these days, it's nice to be plugged in.
Of course, like everything in life, there's a price.
TRULINCS isn't a free service. The Bureau of Prisons charges five cents per minute to read or type an email. Not much, you might think, but it adds up. I used to spend up to 1200 minutes a week on my writing career from prison. That's like $240 a month for an email service. And since most prisoners only make $15 or $20 a month, many simply can't afford to stay connected.
That's why so many inmates turn to illicit ventures like smuggling drugs or smartphones into their institutions. The money can be too hard to pass up. And for real, what are they going to do if they catch you, throw you in jail? But a bigger reason is that just like people in the real world, prisoners want to know what is going on, they want to let people know what is up with them and get some type of recognition and acknowledgement from people in return. When you are serving time in a correctional facility, social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are a lifeline to the real world. And prisoners will do whatever it takes to hold onto that.
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