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Energize: The Federal Bureau of Prisons’ Technological Revolution

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As I write this, I sit at a TRULINCS computer in a federal prison’s housing unit. A set of in-ear JVC earbuds pumps out Bush’s “Reasons” hit. This is accomplished through the SanDisk MP3 player that the headphones are connected to. This was not the case when I arrived in the Federal Bureau of Prisons in 2008, and it has greatly improved my quality of life.

sandiskOver the past six years, the Federal Bureau of Prisons has made leaps and bounds in terms of the technology made available to the inmate population. Back in 2006 — and in the early 1990s, for that matter — federal inmates were allowed to purchase Sony AM/FM Walkman radios. These days this radio costs $39.95 from any federal prison’s commissary. For as long as many prisoners can remember, these radios have been their primary contact with the outside world. Today they are required to hear the televisions in inmate housing units, which have their speakers removed and are mounted high upon the walls in the housing units.

The technological revolution has also expanded to the Inmate Telephone System, where inmates can now place both collect and debit calls to their friends, family members, and others outside of prison. Of course, most federal prison telephones now require the inmate to type in a nine-digit security code and state their name. The name-recognition feature is to ensure that the prisoner attempting to call a particular authorized phone number is actually that prisoner.

While the Federal Bureau of Prisons has most certainly been analyzing these new technologies for quite some time, they have only recently become commonplace in federal prisons across the nation. In 2012, FCI Petersburg — the medium-security federal prison in Petersburg, Virginia where I am incarcerated — installed Trust Fund Limited Inmate Communication Systems (TRULINCS) computers in every housing unit. This coincided with the removal of all in-unit washers and dryers. The trade was a good one.

Upon these TRULINCS installations, most federal prisoners’ worlds opened to new possibilities. This is not because inmates can now check their Trust Fund account balances, review an electronic inmate bulletin board system for notices, send electronic messages to staff, request prescription refills, or print mailing labels, but because of the new monitored email service, which is facilitated through Advanced Technologies Group’s website Corrlinks.com.

As of the installation of these TRULINCS computers, my world changed, much like the worlds of my fellow federal prisoners. With the advent of this monitored email service, I could now be in close and continual contact with my friends and family. This enabled me to significantly expand my writing endeavors (to include regular blogging and media interviews), and to manage my book and advocacy campaigns in real time.

It also gave inmates an affordable way to stay in close contact with their families and loved ones. Perhaps the most important connection is that of incarcerated fathers and mothers with their children, who are hard-pressed to sit down and write a postal letter to a parent in prison.

The cost component of this discussion warrants special attention. Federal prisoners’ families and friends often have to travel hundreds of miles to visit their incarcerated loved ones and friends. This can result in an expense of hundreds or even thousands of dollars for food, gas, and lodging. With a monitored email service, federal inmates can stay in contact with their families and friends for a fraction of the cost, and prison administrators can even monitor the communications more effectively. Each minute spent within the TRULINCS email system costs only five cents, while outside contacts incur no cost when they use Corrlinks.com. This is a far cry from the cost of a hotel room for even a single night, not to mention the gas required to drive hundreds of miles.

Following the advent of the TRULINCS system, in 2010 FCI Petersburg implemented an MP3 player service, a program already in use in other federal prisons. This service allows inmates to purchase a $69 8GB SanDisk MP3 player and browse and purchase songs through the Music folio on the TRULINCS computers. With over two million songs to choose from — each costing between 80 cents and $1.55 — now inmates at FCI Petersburg can listen to the music that they enjoy, even if there are some restrictions on music which has explicit lyrics, adult subject matter, or is not available through the service provider. As of June 16, 2014, FCI Petersburg will begin selling a new $88 16GB MP3 player, which will hold approximately 4,000 songs, as opposed to the 8GB model, which holds around 2,000 songs.

In the popular press — and within the prison administration rags — there is a healthy amount of discussion concerning whether inmates deserve access to technologies such as MP3 players and email. Senators have suggested that such technologies could cause “security concerns.” Prison guards have asserted that MP3 players and computer access, even if paid for by each individual prisoner, are rewards for crime. And victims’ rights groups have stated that this will help prisoners further offend victims of crime.

Most of these concerns were raised prior to the introduction of these new technologies, and have subsequently calmed since there have been no security breaches, no reported new victims as a result of email or MP3 player usage, and a general trend towards technological literacy amongst the prison population, which helps prisoners reintegrate into society post-release.

On the other hand, prisoners can be seen emailing their children — a connection sometimes severed by the necessity for written letters. Those who have been in prison for a very long time are learning how to use computers, some for the first time in their life. And others are finding a healthy release in listening to the music they’ve been without for many years, decades even. The TRULINCS email service and the MP3 player service have had a profound impact upon prison culture. As prisoneducation.com has reported, lives have simply been improved, plain and simple.

As the future unfolds, the Federal Bureau of Prisons continues to look to new technologies as a means to smarter prisons, which help to rehabilitate inmates and prepare them for their eventual release back into society. Rumors circulate of tablets that will enable prisoners to read ebooks or engage in school work via installed courseware. There are rumors too of audiobooks, which could be purchased and downloaded to the existing MP3 players. And there is even talk of video visitation for prisoners whose families live more than 500 miles away.

For once, prison administrators don’t appear to be afraid of new technologies, but are striving to find ways to integrate it within each and every federal prison, with the aim of improving the culture inside Federal Bureau of Prisons facilities, and, along with it, those incarcerated, too. And this benefits all: prison administrators who must manage large inmate populations, the society to which these inmates will eventually be released, and, of course, the federal prisoners themselves, who, because of such programs, have a higher quality of life both now (while in prison) and for years to come (when they are released from custody).

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About Christopher Zoukis

Christopher Zoukis is the author of Education Behind Bars (Sunbury Press, 2012), the Directory of Federal Prisons (Middle Street Publishing, 2014), and the forthcoming College for Convicts (McFarland and Company, 2015) and United Blood Nation: The Story of the East Coast Bloods (Headpress, 2015). He can be found online at Prisoneducation.com, Prisonlawblog.com, and christopherzoukis.com.