Photo by Eduardo Sánchez on Unsplash
There has been a lapse in posts from Insight, Out due to Dante’s transfer from Sterling Prison to the maximum prison, Colorado State Penitentiary. This was his punishment for getting caught with a cell phone, something that happens to inmates in every prison in this country and even in storylines in “Orange Is The New Black.” Yes, there are logical reasons why a resident having a cell phone would be against the rules. The reason inmates take that risk is that the existing forms of communication between residents and their friends, family members and spouses is difficult and expensive.
Dante shares with us his personal experience of what happened and his perspective of prison system communication, what happens to prisoners when they’re transferred, all with a positive spin as is his way.
In December I was caught with a cell phone and the system thought I should be moved to a MCU (maximum control unit), so here I am for the next six to eight months of 2020. I’ve been here before. The daily routine requires us to spend the majority of the time in our cell alone, with only four hours a day out of our cells with seven people at a time. We get out in the yard two times a week and can make one phone call a day.
I expect to be at this more restrictive level for the next 90 to 120 days before I can move to a less restrictive level for another 90 to 120 days, finally making it back to a lower security level prison yard.
Transferring Prisons Means a Loss of Personal Property
One thing I want to highlight is the process of being moved. First, everything that you own must fit into a small bag. Second, if you’re transferred from your current prison cell to “the hole” (MCU) you don’t pack your bag, the staff does.
Therefore, most of the property you own will come up missing since they decide what’s important and what’s not that will all fit into the bag. I feel as if the staff purposely left out important items to me, including hygiene products, food (all of these things cost money), books, phone address book, and something that you may have had for years and can’t be replaced, like family photos.
One must start over and buy everything all over again. If an inmate isn’t blessed enough to have family or outside financial support they’ll be ass out and struggle to rebuild their property.
This world is hard. Prison life is not easy without some kind of support from the outside world, which happens through calls, letters and emails. Prison state pay is $0.68 a day. If you don’t work or are in a class that pays $9 to $12 a month, you only get $5.00 a month. If you got a job you may make up to $20.00 a month. It’s important to note that the state takes 20% of any pay made for restitution. If a resident has their T.V. taken, which costs $285.90, or other items there’s only state pay to live off of.
I ask you to take a moment to think about this and understand the hardship of being in prison. Yes, most people are here for crimes that they have been found guilty of. I take full responsibility for having a cell phone. But I am starting over in a much more violent space than Sterling for a non-violent, drug-free offense.
The Financial Burden of Staying Connected to Loved Ones
The thing is, the prison system is not built for inmates to receive support from the outside, although this plays an important role in rehabilitation and bettering one’s self. The few ways the system allows us to communicate or have contact with our family is:
• Phone Calls
• Writing letters sent through the mail
None of these forms of communication are easy. It all costs a lot of money for us and our family members, which is a burden and barrier to staying in contact and building strong ties.
Here’s the breakdown:
For one call from prison with the prisoner paying with their own money is $2.50 for the first minute and $0.12 a minute with a max call time of 20 minutes. If the prisoner calls collect it’s double the cost.
Think about how much the average cell phone plan costs with unlimited calls and texts and compare that to what we and our family’s pay, which for 10 phone calls will cost $30.00. Do the math and you can see the financial hardship the system puts on prisoners and their families. Most family members can’t talk to their loved ones in prison because they can’t afford it.
Next, in order to make calls between us and people outside we need to add them to our phone list, which is then approved or not by the prison management. We’re limited to 12 people or numbers total and we can only update it every 30 days, with any changes or additions taking two weeks to be approved.
You cannot just pick up the phone and call anytime you like. (See more about this below.)
All visitors need to be approved in order to come and see you and that process can sometimes take a month or two. When it is approved, many prisons are two to four hours away from family members, so the cost of gas that can be expensive.
After all that, when your family does get to see you, you can only hug or touch them for a few minutes and then you need to sit across from them at a table with no touching except the hands.
The system also makes money from the family’s visits (that last from around 9am to 3pm) through the vending machines. The cost of food is ridiculously high. A soda casts $5.00 to $6.00 each, chips are $3.00 a bag, some items cost as much as $7.00 to $10.00.
When you add it all up – gas and food – it amounts to a lot for a family to pay. I have no family in Colorado so it would cost them even more in travel costs.
The cost of writing is now going up with stamps now at $0.55. Most people don’t write letters anymore so it may take weeks to hear from a family or friend. Some prisons enable family and friends to send us emails through Jpay, which also costs the sender per page and per image sent.
I’ve been in prison for 21 years, going on 22 and keep strong contact with my family and friends. But it is difficult and a financial hardship on us. So, to be able to call, communicate and text to a family member I had to make a choice. I understand that having a cell phone is against the rules, but having those moments to enjoy my loved ones is everything to someone like me.
I will follow the rules from now on but something needs to be done to address the communication hardships on prisoners and their families.
Onward and Upward
2020 is a new year, a new day and a new start to continue to bring new ideas and conversations to Insight, Out. I have been moved from Sterling and the programs I was creating and running (read more about one of those programs, “2nd Chance on the Inside”). All those programs are still up and running, helping prisoners to change, rehabilitate and have a way to a better self.
I’m now working on mentor programs, which I think is another key to the success of rehabilitation, having those mentors that have been through similar experiences, helping them to be proactive about living a new lifestyle.
The Breaking The Cycle Mentorship Step-Down program will allow those serving a life sentence like me and long-term prisoners to mentor other prisoners, younger prisoners, new prisoners and those prisoners that need help with change or help to build a new life inside or outside of these prison walls.
The mentors will already be proactive in their time and show they care. This will allow the Lifer to show their change, rehabilitation and give back to the very community they took so much from by helping to educate, rehabilitate and break the cycle of the old violent way of thinking. Sending a better person back into the community a more responsible, educated and rehabilitated productive member of society enables a safer, better community.
After many years of being proactive and showing rehabilitation they will be able to progress to a lower level prison to learn a trade, gain new skills, take classes, etc. After sometime they will be able to transition to a halfway house with a monitor, giving a Lifer a way to work themselves back into society.
Prison Reform from the Inside and Outside
The only way that this can be done is to work with the community leaders, companies and prison leaders. We need the support from the outside of these walls. Together I wish to build this program with the community. With all the changes going on within prisons and prison reforms we must work together to create the best programs for rehabilitation. The goal is to also allow the outside community to see and build trust, learning how the program allows a prisoner to transition back into the community and have confidence in the process.
This is my focus for 2020 and I’ll have more details on this program as I make progress. The full proposal will be up on our website when we are ready to bring it up for approval.
Insight, Out will bring more to you this year about prison, prison reforms taking place, and many more stories and information.
Private companies like Global Tel Link and Securus make billions of dollars each year from inmates and anyone on the outside that wants to communicate with them. After getting over the financial hump, the ability for them to actually make a call is another hurdle. A piece published on The Marshall Project website, “Game of Phones” by Otheus Hill, Jr., currently serving time at the London Correctional Institution in Ohio, shared the fiercely competitive environment where 200 inmates have access to only 8 phones.
Just this week NPR reported on Mississippi’s felony offense for having a cell phone, which resulted in a 12-year prison sentance for one man. This also comes at a time when inhumane prison conditions in Mississippi were being shared with the outside world by inmates’ cell phones.
Since Dante is now in max and only gets out two hours a day, making his access to calls extremely limited and when he can call me, we’re only able to catch up for 20 minutes and may not be able to talk again for weeks. We’re relying heavily on the old U.S. postage to keep in contact and for me to receive his pieces like the one we’re sharing today. This is a central pillar to address within the conversation and policy development around prison reform. According to research from Urban Institute’s Justice Policy Center (UIJPC), half of all prisoners lose touch with friends and family while in prison. UIJPC also revealed how critical it is for them and their families to maintain that connection during incarceration, relationships that will play a major role in their success on the outside and to reduce recidivism.
We hope that Dean Williams, executive director of the Colorado Deptartment of Corrections, the department’s leaders and policy makers, and those who hold similar roles in states throughout the country, are planning to address this issues and the negative affects they have on prisoners and their families. It will show and enable a more humanitarian approach to the inate need for human connection in all of us.
About Insight, Out
Insight, Out is a blog series by Dante Owens, an inmate at the Sterling Correctional Facility, with editorial and publishing assistance by Kim Owens. Insight, Out conveys Dante’s personal stories and experiences of his life inside prison in an effort to share them with the world outside. This editorial journey will also provide insights into changes being made and restorative residents programs taking place, some of which are led by Dante, within the Colorado’s correctional system that strive for rehabilitation and reducing recidivism. Dante Owens’ writings and opinions are his own and do not reflect or represent that of anyone other than himself.