Guest Writer

L. Vernardo

This is a story about Minnesota prisoners and how their connection to the outside world is very limited. The phone system and JPay kiosk [a computer that, for a fee, lets prisoners call or email with family and friends outside prison] are set up for us as incarcerated persons to have as minimal an amount of contact with the outside world as possible. It’s an ongoing problem here at MCF-Stillwater [Minnesota Correctional Facility-Stillwater], because of the limited phone to prisoner and kiosk ratio. By putting so few of these important modes of communication in areas for prisoners to use, it creates an instant problem. 

The way that these systems are set up has, and is still currently having, a major effect on my relationships with my kids, my significant other, and my immediate family members. In my unit alone, there are approximately 240 people living there at any given moment, with only 20 phones to share among them all. The calls are only 15 minutes long each, which is fair for the amount of people waiting in line to make a call. But for the person actually on the call, 15 minutes seem like nanoseconds. Just as you’re geting into the meat of your conversation, this annoying (automated) woman comes onto the line and says, “You have 60 seconds remaining on this call!” which in turn causes you to look back instinctively at the sea of people waiting for the phone. 

We can make as many calls a day as we are willing to stand in line and wait for. Sometimes, it’s only a 15 minute wait, but usually it’s longer depending on how long the line is for the phone. The phone costs five cents a minute for a 15 minute phone call. That adds up to 75 cents per phone call. 

The same goes for the kiosk, but the only major difference with it is there are only two kiosks for 240 people to share. The exception with this is that we’re only allowed to use each kiosk only twice per day. So the wait isn’t usually as long, except for those days when one of the two kiosks is full with video visits or frozen from over-use, misuse, or just a trash connection. It costs 40 cents per stamp and a stamp allows you to send a message of about 3500 words. 

The solution to this problem would be to add at least 10 more phones per unit and two more kiosks per unit. That would cut the traffic and make communicating with our loved ones so much easier. Or the greatest solution of all would be to finally make the switch to the GTL tablets [individual tablets that prisoners could use from their cells] like they’ve been promising us for the past few years. That would give us all as incarcerated persons unlimited access to the phone and messaging services at cheaper prices, all through the GTL tablet. 

After talking to my daughter and her mother, their feelings on this subject shined a new light on this matter for me. My daughter had this to say, and I quote, “yes, Dad, it is hard not being able to call or text whenever I need you!”

This realization saddens me and made me put in more of an effort to remain in contact with her more regularly. She is 15 years old now and I’ve been in prison since she was only 10 years old. So hearing her even say she still needed me was a great and powerful moment for me. 

After talking to her mother about this situation, she had this to say, and I quote, “I mean, it does suck that we can’t talk on a regular basis, and the times we do talk, it always feels like our calls get shorted somehow.”

My point being the communication is extremely limited and a direct cause for the disconnection between prisoners and the outside world!