The Banality of [Prison] Email

It is probably a little generous to describe CorrLinks, the email service for inmates at U.S. prisons, as the most exclusive social networking platform I’ve ever used. Technically, it’s accurate. I joined by invitation, corresponding with exactly one person on my “Inmate List.” I was often pretty cagey about telling friends I used CorrLinks—not really to keep it secret, but because it felt showy and name-droppy to tell people that I maintained an epistolary dialogue with a maybe-not-that-famous-but-certainly-more-famous-than-me journalist who happened to be in prison. The experience was also completely ad-free, though pretty heavily surveilled by the United States government. Then again, what platform isn’t these days?

But like any exclusive platform, CorrLinks’s business model demands that users pay a pretty high premium—at least one party’s freedom because they are in a building full of cages operated by either the federal government, the United States Navy, a private prison operated by CoreCivic (formerly CCA), one of five state prisons (Iowa, Nevada, Massachusetts, Wisconsin, or Oklahoma), or an immigrant detention center in Farmville, VA. It also costs money for inmates to use (in federal prisons, five cents a minute for computer time and an extra 15 cents per page to print any messages). This often means that it costs money for non-inmates, since they’re the ones most likely supporting a loved one on the inside. Depending on the agency operating the prison, there may be additional fees for non-inmate users. For the low price of six dollars a year, non-inmates can also enjoy a “Premium Account,” which gives them access to a smartphone app and some other cool bonus features.

The costs and context did lend some gravity to prison email—one not especially reflected in the contents of my exchanges, or in the user experience. The developers apparently didn’t put any of the money made off these prison contracts or inmate fees toward interface design. (Maybe they pushed all that toward the premium account features, but I never signed up for one and thus will never know what joys I might have missed in my user experience.) The contents of the CorrLinks homepage sit within a 1000px frame generated by some undoubtedly gnarly ASP.NET backend, using a color palette that evokes a Microsoft Word report template layout or a pop-up scam advertisement login page. The stock photo on the upper left of the header is a close-up of a dimly lit keyboard focused on a key simply labeled “email.” I have no idea what an “email” key would do on a computer, but I suspect I would hate it.

I didn’t completely hate using CorrLinks, though. While the circumstances were weird, and I’d still rather a world without prisons than a world of prison emails, it was kind of novel having an internet pen-pal again. For at least the last decade, I’d mostly experienced and thought of email as an endless chore of emotional labor, logistics management, and leftist listserv drama. When I received the invitation to make an account in mid-March of 2016, the last time I could recall having maintained a long-form online correspondence with a relative stranger (and probably, the last time email had actually felt sort of generative and enjoyable) was high school.

The CorrLinks interface was about as visually advanced as the webmail client I used in the early 2000s. Plain-text, no spell-check, no attachments. CorrLinks began as a pilot program in a few federal prisons in 2005. While I had no luck finding screenshots or archival versions of the site it seems possible the interface hasn’t changed much since then; legacy HTML preserved in the amber of carceral bureaucracy’s incompetence. Other possible legacy components include its confusing constraints. Email threads were deleted from my inbox if they were older than 30 days. Threads also had a 13,000 character limit (including spaces), which meant at a certain point a conversation would have to begin anew with a different subject line. I don’t know if those 13,000 characters reflected a computational measurement (i.e., whether individual characters were stored in a certain byte count in a shitty database somewhere) or just an arbitrary limit, adding another layer of annoyance to sending emails. The interface’s character countdown at the bottom of the message text field was a frequent source of anxiety when I wrote emails. I knew I could just start a new thread, but the count to zero felt like a weird taunt, a snide questioning of whether I really had to go on and on like that. The 30-day deletions were similarly foreboding despite the fact that I could download PDFs of every email received.

Of course, such interface annoyances are minor compared to other arbitrary decisions made by prisons that provide access to CorrLinks. Online support forums for parents and loved ones of prison inmates document the anxiety of unwarranted account blocks or suspensions, forcing middle-aged mothers to navigate layers of prison bureaucracy to figure out their actual transgressions (in one case, helping her son purchase glasses outside of the commissary system). On the inmate’s side, maintaining email correspondence can be challenging due to the vagaries of the prison disciplinary system (“Was in the SHU [Security Housing Units–solitary confinement] again until yesterday so I’m just getting my emails” might be the most depressing variant on the “apologies for my delayed response” preface I’ve ever received).

There’s also the possibility that email communications, like conversations via prison telephone services, could be used against an inmate. As noted in its terms of service, “CorrLinks service staff may access content on the service, including any messages sent or received via the service. All information and content about messages sent and received using CorrLinks are accessible for review and/or download by each respective Agency or their assignees responsible for a particular inmate.” This review might lead to disciplinary action—as in the case of my particular correspondent, who was banned from using CorrLinks for a little over a year after attempting to contact a journalist about conditions in the prison.

In general, this was not the subject matter of the emails I wrote and received when his access was reinstated. We emailed mostly about science fiction (mainly, William Gibson), research I was doing, the status of his ongoing campaign of the tabletop role-playing game Shadowrun, the annoyances of unattentive editors, and the frustrations of freelancing. These messages would be reviewed by someone from the Bureau of Prisons’s Special Investigative Services before being sent. This was an unusually high level of scrutiny; given the sheer volume of (mostly boring and brief) emails and calls sent and made daily, the surveillance of communications usually takes the form of randomized and intermittent checks. (In retrospect, there was a sort of weird irony to primarily communicating via highly-scrutinized email with someone convicted of federal crimes related to reporting on the contents of hacked emails from cybersecurity and defense consultants.)

Given the frequent mention of cyberpunk tropes in my emails, I wonder how much the SIS readers tried to read between the lines for signs of illicit plots. Sometimes inmates will write emails using coded language to facilitate illegal business on the outside or receive instructions on illegal actions to facilitate on the inside. Identifying and breaking down secret meanings within banal phrases is a cat-and-mouse game that predates CorrLinks, of course–prison steganography has a rich legacy, going back to Mary Queen of Scots’s failed coup on Elizabeth I. If there were hidden codes within derisive reviews of The Three-Body Problem and the details of a new Shadowrun game mechanic, I think I missed it. Looking back through these conversations, mostly what I seem to be telegraphing in my messages is I suspect you are very bored, and I am doing my best to provide marginally interesting insights from the outside world.

For most inmates, the appeal of CorrLinks has less to do with whether or not they’re great at email or really enjoy writing at all: it’s simple economics. The five-cents-a-minute cost of CorrLinks is a bargain compared to phone call rates—which, in addition to being expensive at their base rate (in 2016 inter-state calls were capped by the FCC at 21-25 cents a minute; the cap was lifted in 2017), also often come with hidden fees and added costs for inmates. For inmates whose particular convictions don’t preclude them from computer use, the outdated text interface isn’t a terrible deal for keeping in touch with family and loved ones electronically. It’s certainly a lower-risk way of doing it than smuggling in and using contraband smartphones.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the company that makes and operates CorrLinks also sells video conferencing and phone services for United States prisons. The website of the devastatingly blandly named Advanced Technologies Group (ATG) is a Markov chain of corporate PR rhetoric punctuated by genteel euphemisms for the business of prison contracting. The Iowa software company’s “Offender Management Suite” provides an array of electronic services for prisons: commissary management, pharmacy tools, investigations, telephone services, and “Inmate Enablement,” the category used to contain CorrLinks. Technically, CorrLinks is but one software feature of ATG’s larger prison electronic services platform TRULINCS. On the inmate’s end, their five cents a minute of screen time can include emailing, checking or transferring funds from their accounts to make phone calls, or downloading a selection of MP3s to use on commissary-sold USB players. (For a time, the CorrLinks Frequently Asked Questions section included the query “Can I buy MP3s?”; a question that I found almost heartwarmingly dumb before realizing it was not a question for people on the outside.)

In 2012, ATG was acquired by The Keefe Group, one of the biggest food vendors to U.S. prisons. In addition to prison communications infrastructure, the company has a small but dedicated cult-like following around its “Whole Shabang” potato chips. For a long time, the chips—beloved by inmates but only available in prison—were a popular commodity on secondary markets, smuggled out and sold on eBay to released convicts who missed the snack. The company began selling the chips online to the general public a few years ago, recognizing an exciting new market opportunity. The chips have no bearing on using CorrLinks, it just baffles me that a single company’s empire can extend from delicious gluten-free snacks to email services. In the world of prison contracting things like potato chips, vitamins, soap, financial transactions, and email become essentially fungible commodities.

Keefe is itself a subsidiary of TKC Holdings, an investment holding company that also owns Trinity Services Group, another prison food services provider, and Courtesy Products, which primarily sells single-serving hotel room coffee makers (which, in retrospect, share a lot of the ideological and aesthetic constraints of prison products and might explain why I’ve always found them so depressing). The concentration of ownership in prison vendor services is not particularly surprising, nor is that concentration’s tendency to lead to exorbitant costs and subpar services for inmates. There’s little incentive for ATG to improve or update its product—competitor prison communications vendors, like the slightly more infamous Securus, are focused more on video conferencing, and it’s not as though the people using the service are really considered deserving of more than good-enough software.

But it would somehow be worse, I think, to demand a “humane” design intervention on CorrLinks. Some Glassdoor reviews of ATG lament the outdated technology stack as a major “con” of working there. Their complaints don’t really dwell on the reality that their product is for people who have been put in cages by the state. Advancing or improving the quality of the prison email interface seems kind of a pathetic demand given the circumstances, and cosmetic UX fixes or technical improvements to electronic communications for inmates would inevitably be used against, not in service of, their needs. Prisons want to save on costs as much as inmates do, and the promise of more advanced communication services and technologies for prisons usually means not greater care for inmates, but a justification to limit visitation. Security and economic efficiency are the technocratic rationales provided here, not psychological violence. If video conferencing software is as good as its vendors insist it is, there’s no need to facilitate face-to-face interactions with partners or children. After all, they argue, these visits can be conduits for contraband and facilitating illegal activities; better to have everything tightly monitored.

Perversely, the premise of benevolently “fixing” prison technologies and turning that fix into justification for further surveillance and containment reminds me of the rinse-repeat cycle of feature tweaks and appeals to users made by social media platforms following major controversies and public backlash. Ultimately, most of these changes just amount to updates in terms of service that absolve the platform of liability for whatever particular harm they’d recently enacted and maybe a new landing page widget. There’s at least an honesty to prison tech admitting that users don’t really have a choice to pick alternative or competing services.

In the face of rhetoric concerning “mindfulness” in tech, the imperatives of “slow data” and intentional breaks from our addictively-connected world (and as social media platforms themselves absorb this critique and work it into their own branding), I often think about the fact that “inspirational” constraints, limited access, and improvisational hacks to communicate outside of standardized and surveilled paradigms are rarely a choice but a last resort imposed upon people with less power in this world. Being able to do extraordinary things or find meaningful connection and solidarity in spite of those constraints is not proof of the value of constraints (or the institutions that impose them), but the wherewithal of human beings.

I haven’t been as diligent at keeping in touch with my now formerly incarcerated correspondent in the past year and a half since his release. We’ve both been busy—he with starting ambitious new projects and apparently catching up on literally every video game made in the past five years, me with freelancing and paralyzing depressive episodes, maybe both of us with the weirdness of day-to-day life as the rattling noise of America under fascism forms a grim underlying ambience. The conditions of checking in have changed, as have the technologies used to do so. And this sort of seems as it should be. Although I have again abandoned the practice of long-form correspondence, I don’t really miss the notification emails from CorrLinks about new messages or counting down my 13,000 available characters. The most exclusive social network I ever used—and one where I put more thought into my correspondence than I had in a very long time—was also the easiest and most gratifying to quit.

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In IRL’s Virtual Connections episode, Chloe Stuart-Ulin gives a first-hand account of her life as a “closer” for an online-dating service; we hear a dramatic, real-life story about a woman who finds her biological parent online; and Emma Brockes talks about how we can all maintain humanity while interacting with others on the internet.

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