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Before my incarceration at age 19 in 1997, my formal experience with technology ended with Windows 2.0 as a high school freshman. I played Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo video games, or paid quarters for tokens at an arcade. I saw dial-up internet exactly once, when my girlfriend logged into a chat room to find out when to purchase some concert tickets.
Technological learning curves were even steeper for those who entered prison in the 1980s, anchored as they were in Star Wars, laser tag, and Knight Rider. Whatever decade we got there, our memories of digital things collectively faded over time against the distant buzz of the dot-com era, with its URLs and cell phones.
All of us who entered prison before the tech evolution of the early 2000s watched it play out on a television inside a prison dayroom, struggling to grasp new developments in our isolation outside of time. We were reminded of our isolation whenever someone new came to death row and spoke about "the internet." After a while though, they too became encapsulated in the concrete of yesterday, witnesses of the free world's technological glamor from a disconnected distance.
North Carolina prisons resisted technological advances until the mid-2000s, when canteens went cashless and a number of minimum and medium custody facilities provided limited access to pay phones. Weekly Rec Department movies were still 8mm films displayed on pulldown silver screens. Televisions were analog behemoths bolted to the dayroom wall. Nobody had hot plates, tape players, microwaves, or any tech other than a cheap digital watch and a hand-held AM/FM radio that used two AAA batteries.
On death row, we shared a single wall-mounted, steel-wired phone—identical to a pay phone, but without the coin slots—between 24 people. This system obviously came with its own limitations under normal circumstances. Those problems were exacerbated during the COVID-19 lockdowns when frustration and anxiety drove everyone to the phone, and tempers flared.
For a time, violence seemed inevitable—until a memo appeared on the block bulletin board in June 2020. In bold capital letters, it announced:
"NEW PRISONS TECHNOLOGY PROJECT"
"The Division of Prisons will introduce a new technology project that provides tablets to every offender, at no cost to you or the state of North Carolina, at all prison facilities."
Those reading the memo on death row at the time averaged 25 years in prison, each near the edge of 50. The concept of a "tablet," while simple to understand in a TV commercial, lacked any context in the carceral world.
Pay phones and profit margins
The advent of new technology in prison doesn't just allow for increased communication—it presents the state with new opportunities to make a buck.
Nationally, at the same time as the rise of social media and flip phones, an overburdened carceral system faced a growing crisis for mass incarceration. In 2005, as public officials searched for ways to cut budgets, Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) warned its investors that the demand for private prisons' goods and services would be negatively impacted by relaxed conviction and sentencing measures.
It was a perverse admission of the industrialization of prisons. More people in prison meant more money for private companies building correctional facilities—or supplying telephone services, tasers, electronic ankle monitors, and GPS tracking.
The 2008 recession supercharged the private prison industry when state governments struggled to maintain overcrowded facilities and bloated penal budgets without releasing more people from prison. By 2010 in the South and Southwest, 7 to 9 percent of all prisoners were in private facilities—compared to just 2 to 3 percent in the Northeast and Midwest, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
Privatized prison services impact nearly everyone in the system. One such company to rise out of the 2008 recession is the online prison profiteer JPAY, a Florida-based money transfer service. JPAY streamlined the collection of money from friends and family members of incarcerated people, charging a fee for every transaction and depositing money in the prisoners' trust fund account.
North Carolina's progressive image compared to other Southern states often actually means catching up to the rest of the country. This is especially true of its prison system.
It was not until 2012 that JPAY eventually came to serve North Carolina prisons, leading the way for other profiteers to follow. Soon after, prison telecom giant Global Tel Link (GTL) contracted with the Division of Prisons to provide phone services to every cell block of every facility. By 2016, they reached Central Prison's death row. Before the phones' arrival, if one didn't write letters or get visits, a single collect call around Christmas was the only other way to connect to the outside world.
GTL—which was, and is currently the defendant in numerous individual and class action lawsuits for its aggressively opportunistic and predatory business practices, including improperly retaining money that was deposited in accounts after they went inactive for a short period of time—was the first to meaningfully connect incarcerated people with their friends and family.
For a fee.
As beneficial as access to a phone is to the incarcerated population in spite of the fees, it also meant something else for prison officials: A new, amplified way to gather information from prisoners—and anyone communicating with them.
No longer did penal servitude stop at the gates of a prison. Now, it invaded the home, car, workplace, town, state, and country of anyone daring to accept a call from the inside. Through GTL, the carceral state received limitless access to the private lives of law-abiding citizens.
For us, reacclimating to a telephone seemed a silly thing at first. Who forgets how to use a phone? But after going without one for years, the rules of conversation, delay between lines, and 15-minute time limit for each call made communication discouraging for some. A number of older guys refused to use the phone. I stumbled and tripped over words while speaking to my parents. Even though an automated warning announced every call would be monitored and recorded, the pre-recorded message soon became so much background noise when it came to talking with my family.
Considering the frustration and despair caused by the pandemic and understaffing, the June 2020 memo announcing "The New Prisons Technology Project" was a welcome distraction.
"From the tablets," it read, "you will be able to make phone calls and enjoy a variety of programs and activities, such as health-focused offerings, self-help programs, and re-entry related programming to name a few."
These programs were especially tantalizing given that in 1994, the national Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act stripped most prisons of educational programming and incentives for good behavior. What was referred to as the "No Frills" prison experience was really a human warehousing of many bored, frustrated, and dehumanized people with nothing but time.
The new memo about the tablets boasted video visits, a comprehensive education package that met "state standards," and a law library that had been absent from North Carolina prisons since the 1970s. Still, despite knowing the state has never been a benevolent caretaker, everyone immediately spun elaborate fantasies about movies, TV shows, music, and games. Conspiracy theories spawned rumors and misinformation, twisting talk of the tablets with dystopian cynicism.
The New Prisons Technology Project hung like a giant carrot dangling from the perpetual stick that is life in prison. Most understood the tablets as incentives for good behavior in a system devoid of them—and, of course, as a money-making scheme for prison profiteers. But many who read the memo overlooked the primary purpose of the new technology: An extension of the state's surveillance.
Screens that watch you back
As helpful as increased communication with the outside world seemed, it also allowed prison officials to monitor, record, and gather more data on incarcerated people, and their families and friends. While the impact of that access was not always apparent, there were obvious cautionary tales. Earlier this year after an incident at Central Prison, an administrator testified at the bond hearing of a man whose conviction and sentence were vacated and awaited retrial. Using the transcript of a phone conversation between the defendant and a co-defendant who turned state's witness, the Central Prison administrator helped to get the bond denied without her testimony being considered "hearsay evidence." When clips of the administrator's testimony aired on WNCN Channel 17 news at noon, it was a chilling reminder that the only private conversation in prison is the one you don't have.
Prison is fundamentally about incapacitation, punishment, control, and surveillance. Penal philosopher Michel Foucault held that in addition to surveillance, prisons should be considered as places for the formation of "clinical knowledge" about the incarcerated, both in behavior and the "deeper state of mind."
Advances in technology increase the body of knowledge prison officials build by seamlessly integrating surveillance with the ordinary course of life—and making prisoners dependent on technology in the process. This in turn allows law enforcement to collect information on ordinary people who unknowingly surrender their right to privacy by communicating with a prisoner—be it by mail, or by tablet.
North Carolina prisons had seen a rise in technology back in 2017, following an incident that April in which a prison guard was murdered by a mentally ill man incarcerated at Bertie Correctional Institution in Windsor, North Carolina. Later that same year, four other prison workers were murdered by prisoners attempting to escape from Pasquotank Correctional Institution in Elizabeth City.
After the death in April, The Charlotte Observer published a series of investigative articles by Ames Alexander telling lurid stories of compound corruption against prison guards—a result of chronic understaffing, poor wages, and little external oversight of a decaying penal system.
This increased violence—and coverage of its causes—revealed substantial dysfunction and embarrassed lawmakers. The governor's Crime Control Commission hired Duke University Sanford School of Public Policy to study the penal system's problems, and they in turn produced a staffing and security report containing recommendations for nine urgent improvements in personnel, organizational culture, and facility safety.
All of their suggestions advanced the use of technology in North Carolina prisons; from social media "good news stories" that drew attention away from the violence, to infomercials about career opportunities, to infrared scanners on perimeter fences and cell phone interdiction tech. The seventh recommendation in particular would more closely identify the penal system as a law enforcement entity by sharing information with the SBI, FBI, ICE, and local police through an "intelligence management system," citing similar models in Pennsylvania and Tennessee which they say have "allowed for more comprehensive investigations that expand beyond the prison walls to reduce crime both in prison and the surrounding area."
After the publication of the staffing and security report, the Legislative Oversight Committee on Prisons with the Department of Public Safety created the Prison Reform Advisory Board to advise the DPS on policies, programs, and services that would improve prison safety and security. Chaired by retired Major General of the U.S. Army Beth Austin, and comprised of current and former high-level prison officials, one discussion from a June 19, 2018, board meeting is especially telling.
One board member asked what the current "largest" drug problem is in North Carolina prisons. Another member replied that "synthetic cannabinoids" like K2 and spice—which are legally sold online and in tobacco shops—are especially problematic, because they are cheap and do not show up on traditional urine screens.
The meeting's minutes continue: "Mr. Mohr asked what intelligence gathering strategies are used inside the prison system. Ms. Sutton replied that phone calls, informants, and letters sent to offenders are used. Ms. Sutton stated that facilities use local law enforcement officials to assist with criminal investigations and they work with the department's Special Operations Intelligence Section."
After the Prison Reform Advisory Board submitted its findings and Todd Ishee, a former warden from Ohio's penal system, was hired as commissioner of North Carolina prisons, the next phase of the intelligence-gathering operation began. It would quickly exacerbate the dysfunction in North Carolina prisons.
Digitized and sanitized
Piloted in women's prisons in February 2020, TextBehind is another predatory profiteer like JPAY, which receives, scans, and sends digital files of personal mail to North Carolina, Wyoming, Colorado, Arkansas, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia penal systems.
Physical mail sent to TextBehind's Phoenix, Maryland P.O. Box is digitized and sanitized. No more scented letters or tear-stained notes from girlfriends or wives. No more 4 x 6 photos of siblings that remind us of a time when the whole family was together.
I had a small pop-up card collection that became my Christmas decorations. Each year, I received a new one and exchanged it with one of the old ones. When I told my mom about the switch to scanned mail, she said: "They've taken everything from us." What remained was a grainy copy of whatever was sent, several weeks after the fact, if it ever arrived at all. Physical mail became more uncertain and undependable, requiring certified or tracked letters just to be sure TextBehind could not claim they never received it.
Some states, like Florida, make prisoners pay for a paper copy of their own mail. While this does not include letters from attorneys and court documents, or books and periodicals mailed from a vendor like Amazon, few people ever receive their scanned mail, because it is either lost in this convoluted transit, or people on the outside have no desire to relinquish their privacy to the carceral state.
Commissioner of Prisons Todd Ishee claims TextBehind is needed in North Carolina prisons to screen out contraband, especially liquid cannabinoids sprayed on paper.
However, according to the U.S. Department of Justice, prison staff are the primary source of drugs, cell phones, and other contraband entering prison. The Federal Bureau of Prisons and the state of Pennsylvania, the latter of which uses TextBehind, found that once they began scanning mail through an intermediary, drug positivity rates in prisons actually increased.
Ironically enough, the North Carolina prison Advisory Board admitted at its meetings that prison staff are the primary source of contraband in North Carolina prisons too. If prison staff are the cause of the drug problem, then the switch to TextBehind was always about creating an easily accessible digital file for the Special Operations Intelligence Section and law enforcement.
Virtually identical to TextBehind, competitor MailGuard, of Florida-based Smart Communications, has "a smart tracker" surveillance system that gives officials a cache of intelligence into the public sender: home addresses, IP addresses, email, GPS tracking names, and location of devices in use, as well as any accounts connected to them.
These programs, as Stephanie Krent of the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, told The Intercept, "force writers to leave a lasting digital footprint of their words, even if they opted to send physical mail because they preferred greater privacy."
The final phase
In 2020, when the tablets were first given to every incarcerated person at Central Prison (except to those in disciplinary segregation or designated mental health segregation), a Global Tel Link sales rep-technician gave each cell block a 20-minute lecture on how to use them. The Android device, with its touchscreen, facial recognition software, and security code entry system, felt alien. The digital image of my face above the glowing keyboard appeared much older than what was reflected in the steel mirror on the wall of my cell. Others gave similarly bemused or perplexed looks. Some listened to the fast-talking sales rep, struggling to absorb an entire technological world in that fast-moving moment.
No internet access. A select number of apps to be downloaded through the GTL GettingOut app. Some of the programs, like Khan Academy, were free. Most of the apps, including messaging, access to digital photos, and music, cost $0.01 a minute—a fortune for anyone without money or an income.
One older mentally ill man in a wheelchair grew frustrated and wheeled off, leaving his tablet on the table. Another watched Jerry Springer on the TV, the tablet forgotten in his lap. It would take most of us days to puzzle through a device that had evolved during the decades of our confinement. Eventually though, the day room stayed empty for the length of the tablet's battery life.
That was another part of the tablet's purpose: Control through fascination. Distracted people are less likely to think critically about the prison system's designs or reasons for their sudden willingness to provide access to technology. The advantage of greater communication aside, self-isolating people reduced the likelihood of violent confrontation—as well as questions about the information gathered by prison officials.
Within a few weeks of the tablets being passed out, a regular population prisoner was stabbed to death on unit three. The assault was bad enough that a crime scene photographer was brought in. The stabbing, though not fatal, forced the unit into a series of lockdowns made worse by familiar structural problems like power outages and understaffing—and now, increased levels of frustration when the Wi-Fi signal was weak and inconsistent.
Sometimes the new technology worked. Sometimes it didn't.
When the GTL sales rep tried to convince leery incarcerated people that we needed the tablets, it was the same pitch used by every prison profiteer to date: a modernized, streamlined incarceration experience. Technology is touted as a privilege in prison, but it's a superficial fix—one that's both monetized and monitored at every turn—replete with the same dysfunction, violence, and other subterfuge that always hides what really happens in prison.