Perspectives from those who work and live in the criminal justice system. Sign up to receive “Life Inside” emailed to you every week.
Back in August, six of my essays, four of my short stories and a bunch of half-written poems that were perhaps worthy of francine j. harris disappeared from the JPay electronic tablet I use to write and stay in touch with my loved ones.
For the most part, the JPay system is a relief. Along with sending and receiving messages, the tablets allow us to get music, games and books from a catalogue on the kiosks that we use to download materials.
There are just two kiosks for over 80 people in my unit. When it’s your turn, you pick up where your conversations and jokes left off. You pore over the hard-to-decipher letters your young children write to you. When JPay is working properly, it makes connection with the outside world more possible. But there are downsides, like losing features.
I lost my works-in-progress because the prison and JPay reduced the tools available to men in the so-called security threat group (STG). Those changes also impacted prisoners like me, who aren’t in the STG.
Suddenly, my box for drafts was gone, and the sentences I typed appeared in one long line across the screen. Without line breaks, I couldn’t create paragraphs in my essays or stanzas in the poems I wrote to my 11-year-old daughter. Essentially, my tablet ceased to be a vehicle for my creative writing. It may sound minor, but try reading and writing messages on your tablet, laptop or phone without line breaks and drafts. Suddenly, your writing makes no sense.
I was devastated, because writing is one of very few freedoms I have at Baraga Correctional Facility in Michigan. Writing is how I make sense of the muddiness within myself and this environment, and I love the ritual of honing my work on the tablet and sharing it with other writers. It’s like a second chance at life.
The change in mailbox features came on top of the usual cost of the electronic “stamps” we have to buy to communicate with our loved ones. Each page requires a stamp, which gets expensive, especially during COVID-19, when families are struggling and people are dying. Even worse, the power to accept or reject the non-legal material that we read and write falls on whoever the Michigan Department of Corrections appoints. Often it’s just a corrections officer filling in for another in the mailroom. JPay is considered a privilege rather than a right. And privileges can be taken away.
According to “Protecting Your Health and Safety: A Litigation Guide For Inmates,” a book published by the Southern Poverty Law Center, the outgoing messages the prison rejects need to be “reasonably related to legitimate penological interests.” That means we can’t send or receive messages that contain escape plans, threats of blackmail or other criminal activity. According to the guide, “officials may not censor incoming or outgoing mail simply because it criticizes the courts, jail or prison policies, or the officials themselves.”
And yet, I’ve had my messages about the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor rejected. …….