By: Gunther Fiek
Posted by: Bob Chatelle
I was disgusted several weeks ago, and it was certainly not the way I wanted to start a day. Perhaps some individuals are right on point when they say that it is not good practice to check your emails or messages so soon after waking up. A bad habit I’ve gotten into the routine of doing every day since I began using the email services provided by JPay. And certainly what an email may contain can either ruin or brighten ones day — at the very least, it sets the mood.
So it was an email from JPay that welcomed me to a new day, and it sure did set the mood not just for that day but for other days to come. It was advising all inmates within the Georgia Department of Corrections (GDC) that the DOC had revised its policy concerning the JPay email services ( S.O.P. 204.10 Offender Use of the Goal Device (tablet) and JPay Kiosks). “Effective 10/4/2018, you will only be able to have email correspondence with individuals who have been approved and added to your Approved Visitation/Email List. This Approved Visitation/Email List may contain up to 12 loved ones”, the August 9 email said. My jaw dropped.
I was dumbfounded, to say the least. This new policy meant that no longer would just any individual out there – “the free world” – would be allowed to communicate or reach out to me or anyone else serving a sentence in Georgia via the JPay email services. This also meant that I would have to add those individuals who I currently email with to my permanent visitation list despite the fact that they may not actually ever visit me because of distance or other factors. Needless to say, other than my direct family members of course, overtime these individuals have become extraordinary friends and even mentors. While I’ve met most while incarcerated, they have ALL provided support and encouragement. I couldn’t be thankful enough that they are part of my life.
That particular morning in August was somewhat chaotic as many men in my housing unit, and surely around the whole facility and other ones around the state, scrambled to find out more information about the policy change and the ‘Email List’ that the message mentioned. “You will need to complete the Facility/Center Email List form and provide it to your counselor”, the email said. So as soon as I saw my counselor that morning, and others throughout the day, not a single one new what I was talking about. Email List? On visitation list to be able to email? The other men who also asked counselors and senior staff members got the same response. No staff member at the facility, Dooly S.P., new anything about the new policy. The only consistent response that we all pretty much received was, “We’ll look into it.” I was not surprised, though.
Over my years of serving time I have learned that there’s plenty of miscommunication between departments within a facility. And I have been assigned to a handful of state facilities over the course of those years and not one is a stranger to the lack of communication. So I would not be surprised at all when the GDC would change or implement new policy without acknowledging it first to each facility’s administration, or department, before notifying the inmate population as in this case.
At Dooly, it took almost three weeks to let us know how the new policy was going to be implemented. Three wasted weeks considering that we had a deadline of until the end of September to make changes or add individuals to our visitation list. It included in obtaining the necessary forms, mailing them to those we wanted to add to our visitation list, have those individuals fill them out and getting them notarized, and finally mailing the forms back to the facility for processing. It would also involve doing a background check of each individual submitted which, from past experience, it easily takes the staff member assigned to the task up to a month or more to complete. According to the email and the new policy, it said, “Due to this policy change, you will be allowed to make changes to your Approved Visitation/Email List from now until the end of September. Another opportunity will be available in November.”
I knew from the start that there was no way the forms and background check could be processed by the October 4 deadline. The counseling department, who would he responsible for handling the paperwork and entering the necessary information into the system, is already short on staff. Each counselor carries a heavy case load. And now they were being asked by the GDC to process additional forms and background checks of family members and friends submitted by hundreds of inmates who would want to continue communicating with them through the email services. (Dooly has an inmate population of around 1,600). All in just a three or four weeks span? There’s no way, I thought.
So after almost three weeks of uncertainty, counselors finally started going to each housing unit at the facility with information about the new policy and with the necessary forms. There we were told something completely different than what the email we received said. We were advised that we would only be allowed to email with five people (not 12!) that must be in our approved visitation list, and that the deadline to submit all the necessary forms was September 12. What? We, and our family members and friends, were only being given about two weeks to do everything we had to do to submit all the paperwork in time. Additionally, we were also told that we wouldn’t be able to make any changes to our visitation/email list in November. Have the staff at Dooly read the new directive coming from the GDC bureaucrats?
What we were told that day disturbed me. Now, we were also being told that, in other words, we had to choose – or force to choose – between family members and friends, only five to email with. That took an emotional toll on me since I have enjoyed the ability to communicate with all of them through the email services. Yes, we always could keep contacting each other through snail mail. But the benefits of maintaining contact through email outnumbered those of traditional mail. It allows us to have swift access to anyone by the click – or touch – of a key. At the same time, it gives us a sense of connectivity to the free or outside world. Can anyone out there imagine life without email and reverting to snail mail to keep in touch with loved ones? Once you’ve been given a taste of it and have enjoyed it for a few years now, I find it difficult to let go. So, at least for me, it was a difficult decision to make because everyone who I email with contributes in their on way to how I’ve been able to handle my time in prison.
I’m a Spiritual person so I always leave and handle everything through prayer. And an answer to my prayers came almost a week later when counselors began going to every housing unit advising us that they had made a mistake. They acknowledged that it wasn’t just five people that we would be allowed to email with but up to twelve. We were all given extra forms to submit if needed, and we were also given an extra five days to mail those forms to whoever might need it, fill them out and get them notarized, and have them mail it back for processing. (Not enough days if you ask me). The news brought much relief, though, for the reason that now I could keep emailing with everyone and was no longer in the position of having to choose who to keep in my email contact list.
On October 4, the dreaded deadline, we received another email advising us that the new policy will now be “put into effect on 1/2/2019.” Finally, I thought, someone within the GDC came to his or her senses. The new email also said, “Its important to use this time wisely to submit your updates to your Counselors as soon as possible to ensure no one is overlooked. You will be allowed to make changes to your Approved Visitation/Email List from now until the end of December 31, 2018. The next opportunity to make changes to your Approved Visitation/Email List will be available in May of 2019.” The email couldn’t be more clearer so now its a matter of whether the staff at the facility or other facilities would understand it and follow the directive.
I’m not sure if I can make sense of the need for the policy change concerning the emails. The JPay email service has a number of security features and, additionally, it can be monitored. It includes an algorithm that flags thousands of key words and phrases that alerts someone within the GDC to review an email before it reaches the user. In my own opinion, and from a security stand point, its safer than traditional mail. Anyone out there can use traditional mail services to contact any inmate in Georgia or in any state. That cannot be stopped because of federal law. However, the DOC may search the contents of any incoming mail and, if necessary, read it. Although I’m certain that reading or reviewing every piece of mail that comes into a facility on a daily basis must be a difficult task to undertake. The same applies for our outgoing mail — inmates can write to anyone. So if anyone, complete strangers, can contact us through traditional mail, why can someone be allowed to open a JPay account and sent as an email?
Regardless of when this ridiculous updated policy takes effect or the reasons for its implementation, one thing is for sure: The new change enables further isolation from the outside world of those that are trying to serve their time. I have read countless articles and reports about the need for contact with family and friends in order to assist with rehabilitation and, eventually, reduce recidivism upon release. And counselors emphasize during review periods the importance of having and maintaining contact with our loved ones. The new procedure just seems counterproductive. I don’t have internet access, and what’s available in the inmate library is very limited, so I can’t provide recent reports or articles. But I hope that whoever reads this, can provide links in the comments section to this post.
I acknowledge that the new email policy is not cutting us out completely as some people might point out. But I do believe that it might be a first step towards tighter control. I hope and pray that this is not the case. Peace.