Prison Ministry 2.0: Emailing Inmates

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As the United States and its free citizens hurl through the second decade of the 21st century, most of its ample prison population is solidly rooted in the final decade of the 20th, with regards to email. While inmates in some prisons have had limited access to email since as far back as 2005, when the messages would be printed out and included with other mail for review and distribution, most are limited to old fashioned snail mail. But more recently an increasing number of prisoners have been allowed to send and receive messages through an officially-sanctioned service called CorrLinks. The Wild Hunt posed the question: how has this impacted Pagan prison ministry?

CorrLinks, a web site run by Advanced Technologies Group of West Des Moines, Iowa, is an intermediary between prisoners and those on the outside with whom they wish to contact. Federal prisoners, as well as those incarcerated in Iowa, may apply to use the system, but can be rejected for any reason, including having used a computer to commit crime. The inmate can only send messages to people on an approved contact list, which is populated with email addresses provided by the inmate. Those addresses are vetted and included only after the address owner consents. Prisoners can use designated computers, which have no internet access, to receive and send emails at a cost of five cents per minute. Incoming and outgoing messages are reviewed by prison officials, as is the case with any other mail to and from inmates.

Inquiries directed to CorrLinks customer service department about aspects of the service received unhelpful replies. Those questions, probing how inmate fees are set and whether the software itself provides monitoring tools, got a one-sentence reply: “You would need to contact facilities for that information.”


[Public Domain Photo]

The system has been in place since at least 2005, but only one of the Pagan ministers asked indicated any familiarity with it. That one is River Faeron, who is a member of Everglades Moon Local Council of Covenant of the Goddess and has been involved in prison ministry in the Tallahassee area for the past seven years. “I’ve been active in prison ministry,” he wrote, “but I’ve never been active in email-correspondence-ministry through CorrLinks or anything similar. I only used CorrLinks by sheer coincidence, when a single inmate from my Florida ministry was transferred into Federal custody and he and I kept in touch for a brief period of time.”

What happened with that one correspondent could be indicative of a larger, underlying problem in prison ministry. Inmates have a lot of time on their hands, and a minister may be the only outside contact that the prisoner has. “Unfortunately, sometimes inmates write lengthy correspondences, and he became distraught/frustrated when his long emails went unanswered for days or weeks,” Faeron conceded. Eventually the prisoner broke off contact completely.

Long letters are typical on paper as well, and as a rule Faeron spends his time visiting in person, rather than responding to correspondence. However, he did say that email is a good way to write without having to reveal one’s address to an inmate.

That time component is something that Ashleen O’Gaea, with Mother Earth Ministries, mitigates by going old school. She doesn’t use email, just the postal service. She said that “a paper letter can be considered for some time before an answer’s made, whereas e-mail time tends to be limited, so, it seems to me, there’s less time for thought to go into the process.” She also finds paper letters easier to refer to while writing a response, and harder to alter without detection than email.

While CorrLinks is the only sanctioned system for federal prisons, there are other similar systems. Reverend Dave Sassman, a member of Circle Sanctuary, said that he uses JPay to email inmates in his state of Indiana. That system charges Sassman a per-page fee for emails, but he was unaware if inmates also must pay. Typically prisoners don’t get anything without paying for it out of their commissary accounts, which must be funded by people who are not incarcerated. Even basic toiletries like toothbrushes and soap may not be provided to an inmate with a zero balance. It is likely that JPay users do get charged on both ends.

The prisons in the United States might be slowly approaching the 21st century, but Pagan ministers don’t appear to be in any rush to adopt electronic communication with inmates. At this point, CorrLinks and similar services seem poised to collect fees for the right to keep in touch using a method that is taken for granted by free people, and Pagan ministers, in particular, don’t see it as a useful tool for improving their work.