Family Ties

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by Jamil Eason

The stark reality is that the penal system’s communications infrastructure wasn’t designed to allow incarcerated people easy access to the communities they have been removed from. How can an incarcerated person maintain or create stronger ties with non-incarcerated people, if access is minimized, restrictive, and heavily monitored? Against all odds, a large majority of the prison community has developed methods to enhance their communications with non-incarcerated people. 

Minnesota’s Department of Corrections, or DOC no longer has in its mission statement that it wants to “connect lives.” The DOC allows its incarcerated to communicate through in-person visits, snail mail, pre-paid 15-minute long phone calls, e-mails, and video visits. But the DOC has a very strict set of rules for confined Minnesotans when they interact with non- incarcerated people. And each channel of communication has its own strict rules. If an incarcerated person breaks those rules, he can lose the privilege of communicating with the outside. 

Jason MacLennan, who has been incarcerated for 19 years, doesn’t feel the DOC has ever connected lives. He also believes that it’s completely unrealistic for incarcerated people to establish effective communication with non-incarcerated people. MacLennan prefers to use the phone because he likes the “back and forth exchange.” He believes the prison system is designed to make it hard for incarcerated people to communicate with the outside world. “The whole point of our removal from society is to disconnect us from the communities we are casted out of,” he said. 

While MacLennan prefers the phone, he notes how hard it is to tune everything out and just focus on the particular phone call. He also highlighted that his housing unit at the correctional facility only has a limited number of phones. Each unit can house 300-plus people, with only sixteen phones. The DOC can take away phone privileges if the unit gets too many infractions, like disobeying a direct order from staff. Not only that, all phone calls are recorded and monitored. 

Tarius Grisham, another incarcerated person, agrees that the available means of communication limit connections with non-incarcerated people “Availability [of contact with the outside] isn’t promised for incarcerated individuals,” he said, adding that conflicting schedules, financial challenges, and physical separation makes it hard to connect. However, incarcerated people are nothing if not resilient and creative. “If there’s a will, there’s a way, and I’ve personally known convicts who have met their wives from prison and have maintained great connections.” 

Gresham explained that in order to make the most out of whatever means of communication are available, incarcerated residents must develop great listening and communications skills. He suggests reading communications books by incarcerated people. He notes that there are also ways around the DOC’s restrictions. One such author who was formerly incarcerated, W. James Dennis, explains that, for example, when using the telephone, the incarcerated speaker must be more evocative with his words, which helps engage the non- incarcerated listener’s mind. (If the visit were in-person, one could use more direct eye contact, hugs, and smiles.) 

Although Gresham prefers the telephone, many people on the inside use writing as their primary means of communications. Snail mail has the fewest restrictions noted in the DOC policy. Willerta Roehell Caldwell, a friend of an incarcerated person, thinks the whole process of trying to communicate from the inside is traumatizing. It’s hard for her to comprehend that when she visits, she may not hold hands with her incarcerated friend. At in-person visits, the Minnesota DOC limits contact to a five second hug and a kiss on the cheek. She believes the “distance mess[es] with everything,” and likes the face-to-face visits, which are more effective than other ways of communicating. 

Dennis, the communication expert, described effective communication as “forcing the person’s mind to give more of its attention to you.” The incarcerated community must learn to make use of the other person’s senses, including touch, taste, smell, sight and hearing. Sight, smell, and touch are good for visits, while hearing and sight are important for the telephone, snail mail and email. By applying these methods to the available means of communication, the imprisoned person can strengthen their connection with non-incarcerated people.