Last August, six of my essays, four of my short stories, and a bunch of half-written poems that maybe deserved francine j. harris disappeared from the JPay electronic tablet that I use to write and keep in touch with those close to me.
For the most part, the JPay system is a relief. In addition to sending and receiving messages, tablets allow us to get music, games and books from a catalog on the kiosks that we use to download material.
There are only 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 study the hard-to-read letters your young children are writing to you. When JPay is working properly, it makes connection with the outside world more possible. But there are downsides, like the loss of functionality.
I lost my current work because the prison and JPay reduced the tools available to the men of the so called Security Threat Group (TSG). These changes have also had an impact on prisoners like me, who are not part of the TSG.
Suddenly my draft box disappeared and the sentences I typed appeared in a long line on the screen. Without the 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 has ceased to be a vehicle for my creative writing. It might seem minor, but try reading and writing messages on your tablet, laptop, or phone without line breaks or drafts. Suddenly your writing just doesn’t make sense.
I was devastated that writing is one of the few freedoms I have at Baraga Correctional Facility, Michigan. Writing is how I make sense of the confusion in myself and in this environment, and I love the ritual of polishing my work on the tablet and sharing it with other writers. It’s like a second chance in life.
The change in mailbox functionality has added to the usual cost of electronic “stamps” that we have to buy to communicate with loved ones. Each page requires a stamp, which is expensive, especially during COVID-19, when families are struggling and people are dying. Worse yet, the authority to accept or reject the non-legal documents we read and write rests with whoever is appointed by the Michigan Department of Corrections. Often it is simply one correctional officer replacing another in the mail room. JPay is considered a privilege rather than a right. And the privileges can be withdrawn.
According to “Protecting Your Health and Safety: A Litigation Guide For Inmates”, a book published by the Southern Poverty Law Center, outgoing messages that the prison rejects must be “reasonably related to legitimate penological interests.” This means that we cannot send or receive messages containing escape plans, threats of blackmail, or other criminal activity. According to the guide, “officials cannot censor incoming or outgoing mail simply because it criticizes the courts, prison or prison policies, or the officials themselves.”
And yet my messages about the George Floyd and Breonna Taylor murders were rejected. The same goes for my work as a journalist on inmates like me at security level 4, who had been waiting to be transferred out of level 5 housing for two years. To add insult to injury, we don’t collect our stamps when a post is deemed unsafe or inappropriate.
In the end, it fell on our loved ones and our writing communities to restore functionality to non-TSG prisoners. They called the establishment and JPay representatives several times to complain. About three weeks after the service change, JPay messaged everyone at Baraga saying they had technical issues they were trying to resolve. A week after this letter, the prisoners who were not part of the security threat group had their features restored.
While I am happy that JPay has returned to normal, I am still upset by the arbitrary nature of the changes. I will never know what my lost essays, poems and letters – my main creative outlet and my second chance in life – might have become.
A spokesperson for the Michigan Department of Corrections said that “transfers from level 5 to level 4 have been slowed down due to the COVID protocol.”
A JPay spokesperson said that an inadvertent version of the software “rolled out in mid-August … has reverted some installations to default settings, impacting drafting and ease of editing … We recognize this technological error and we are committed to serving our customers better. ” Of the censored posts, they said, “If customers feel their content has been wrongly denied, we encourage them to contact customer service, rebut the decision, and request a refund for the stamp.”
Demetrius A. Buckley is a poet and fiction writer. His work has appeared in The Michigan Quarterly Review, RHINO, The Periphery, and Storyteller. He is currently working on a novel, “HalfBreed”. He is serving a 20-year sentence for second degree murder at Baraga Correctional Facility in Michigan.