Wanted: Secure email in all state prisons

Closeup of a woman's hands using a computer keyboard to compose email. (Image: Nata Fuangkaew, via Shutterstock)

For incarcerated Californians, the ability to communicate with loved ones on the outside can be a literal lifeline, helping them survive their time in prison and preparing for successful reintegration into society after their release.

Five correctional facilities in our state – including California Substance Abuse Treatment Facility in Corcoran where my fiancé, Michael, was incarcerated – now offer access to secure email.  I have experienced first-hand the life changing impact of that type of communication.

While phone calls are good, they need to be scheduled. And when you hang up, the connection ends.

But for tens of thousands of incarcerated people in other facilities around California, access to email remains just a dream. Gov. Gavin Newsom has made criminal justice reform a key part of his agenda, and he should move quickly to expand access to these critical communication tools across the entire state.

I have personally witnessed – and numerous studies have found – that regular communication with friends and loved ones by incarcerated individuals greatly increases the likelihood to succeed and decreases the recidivism rate.

But unless you have a loved one in jail or prison, it is hard to fully appreciate the importance of these connections. I was fortunate to live close enough to where Michael was incarcerated that frequent visits were possible. But for many people, the distance and cost involved with in-person visits can be prohibitive.

While phone calls are good, they need to be scheduled. And when you hang up, the connection ends. Emails, on the other hand, are a continuous line of communication.  An email provides an affordable way to share photos and e-cards for holidays, images and messages that you can return to in difficult times. And while these emails need to be screened, like any other communications with an incarcerated loved one, they would usually be delivered in minutes – rather than days, as is the case with snail mail.

The ability to communicate by email became a viable tool in the moments of crisis.

Email also allowed Michael and I to grow closer in our shared faith. We would each start our day by reading a Bible verse out of a book called Our Daily Bread, and thanks to our access to email, we were able to share our thoughts about this daily devotional and what it meant in both of our lives. Email became a pathway to remain grounded in our spiritual walk together.

On days when I was conducting an important training for my job, Michael would send me words of encouragement, and I could send back a note of thanks and let him know how my presentation went. When Michael was pursuing a college degree, he was able to share his essays, projects, and homework assignments. And, I was able to give encouragement, feedback and express how proud I was in his achievements.

Michael and I were able to share the joy in the birth of a child, as well as an uplifting word when death struck.  The ability to communicate by email became a viable tool in the moments of crisis that aided in calming troubled waters.  Even though Michael and I were separated by distance and walls, it felt like we were a constant part of each other’s lives.

Michael believes that his connection to the outside world played a significant role in his rehabilitation. Since Michael’s release, he still uses the same JPay tablet he purchased in prison to function and maneuver in many aspects of the free world. The benefits of this touch screen tablet have been invaluable.

California has already established itself as a leader in the prison reform movement. I hope that Gov. Newsom will recognize the crucial role that email communication can play in this effort and make statewide access to email in prisons a key part of his 2019 criminal justice agenda.

Let’s truly connect and move forward!

Editor’s Note: Amelia Peterson is an educator who believes in prison betterment and reform. She lives in Merced.

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