Delays And Obstacles Disrupt Communications For Georgia Prisoners
Incarcerated Georgians and their loved ones have struggled to stay in touch after the Georgia Department of Corrections began switching communications services from JPay to Securus, as the former merges its systems with the latter. This change was accompanied by the emergence of a more stringent and increasingly punitive prison communications policy.
While the Georgia Department of Corrections’ (GDC) policy was written in 2018, it is only now being enforced, according to incarcerated people and their loved ones. Under the policy, people who wish to communicate with someone inside must submit an application and submit to government screening. Additionally, a prisoner may only have 12 people on this approved communications list.
Prisoners and their advocates say this process is meant to gate-keep and surveil prisoners’ communications. It also limits the means through which prisoners and loved ones can expose abhorrent, brutal prison conditions.
The timing of this transition is particularly distressing because of a wave of killings and unrest affecting incarcerated people. The U.S. Department of Justice is investigating soaring violence in GDC facilities and yet prison administrators have refused to provide federal investigators with basic data on the number of incarcerated people murdered within their facilities.
Many Georgia prisoners have been without electronic communication with their loved ones for over six months at the time of this reporting. In Georgia, most communication between prisoners and those on the outside occurs via correctional tablet devices and in-dorm kiosks. They could exchange emails, pictures, and short videos over this system. This has been the case for over seven years.
Pointing to a gross understaffing crisis and the prolificacy of drugs, many facilities have stopped physical mail delivery via the U.S. Postal Service. Any mail that does enter the facility is scanned and a copy is provided in print or on the electronic tablet devices. Most facilities lack the staff to adequately receive, process, and disburse mail to prisoners or make electronic copies accessible via the tablets and dorm kiosks. Prisoners have reported missing mail at some institutions for months at a time since COVID collided with the staffing crisis. This includes legal mail, the disruption of which presents its own grave concerns for prisoners’ defense and the ability to secure release.
In mid-October, this reporter’s inbox was flooded with messages from Georgia prisoners and their friends and family complaining about email communications. Prisoners reported being told that it would no longer be permissible to have contact with anyone not on their “approved contact list.”
Emily Shelton of Ignite Justice, a prison reform nonprofit, says she reached out to both Securus and JPay after receiving numerous appeals from Georgia prisoners and their loved ones. “I spoke with Securus and was told that GDC sent Securus/Jpay a message stating that no one is allowed to message an inmate unless they’re on the approved visitation list for them,” says Shelton.
Advocates Shadowproof spoke with say this could be a First Amendment mail/communication violation, arguably curtailing or, at the very least, failing to provide meaningful communication between prisoners and the general public. With the in-dorm kiosks out of service as well, prisoners have been unable to submit institutional grievances and health service request forms – an additional First Amendment and Eighth Amendment violation, respectively.
“This drastic change in policy blocks the way nearly 50,000 incarcerated people communicate with their family, including their children, other loved ones and advocates, hurting them and their communities,” said Gerry Weber, senior attorney at the Southern Center for Human Rights. “In effect, countless people who used to be able to communicate with folks on the inside now cannot, with no justification from GDC for this dramatic and inexplicably punitive revocation of vital connection with community supports.”
Shadowproof spoke with people incarcerated in no less than six facilities who say that, as far back as July, all digital or electronic communication with their friends and family via Jpay services was terminated.
“The kiosks were shut off for the entire compound here when Securus reps came in to begin installing the new kiosks and their hardware,” said Zombr3x, a prisoner housed at a Middle Georgia men’s prison. We are withholding his identity to protect him from possible retaliation by prison staff for speaking to the press.
“The kiosks are in now, turned on and running, and have been for the entire compound for weeks,” he said. “Yet we still don’t have login credentials or anything, and we’re being told that anyone who wants to communicate with us must submit to the usual visitation background check procedure.”
A.J., whose real name is also being withheld for his protection, is a prisoner at Smith State Prison. He says that family members and friends who are not entering the facility for physical visitation sessions shouldn’t be subjected to this degree of government scrutiny.
“It’s invasive,” he said. “The process to get someone approved for visits is outrageous. In addition to the criminal records check, our families and friends have to send in their ID, birth certificate, and social card.”
“This is a hassle and GDC treats our families like they are under investigation for being related to an inmate. My family cannot pass drugs or anything else through a screen. Due to this process they are keeping us isolated from our families when these tablets and video visits are meant to keep us together.”
In addition to this information, loved ones are asked to submit background checks and submission of all telephone numbers, emails and addresses. Others will be disqualified from communicating with incarcerated people because of felony convictions, as the GDC doesn’t permit people with felony records to be on a prisoners’ visitation or financial list for a period of time post-conviction.
The lack of email also has a negative impact in terms of access to culture, the press, penpals, external services, advocacy projects, and civil rights organizations.
Susan Burns is the founder and chief administrator of THEY HAVE NO VOICE, a Facebook watchdog group for prisoner rights and conditions. Burns and her group vociferously advocate on behalf of the incarcerated, regularly flooding GDC officials with open letters, chain emails, petitions boasting hundreds of signatures, and phone call campaigns.
Burns told Shadowproof, “I have been blocked at the behest of GDC officials via JPay and Securus. I cannot speak with or e-mail the very people for whom I advocate.”
“They have intentionally maneuvered to stop me from being a voice for those who most need it,” Burns argued. “This is affecting the work of other non-profits also and obstructing our attempts at holding GDC accountable to the public.”
The lack of communications means prisoners aren’t able to maintain and nourish meaningful connections, which negatively impacts their lives post-incarceration. Numerous studies have found that contact and connection with those in the community is powerful in terms of successful reentry. Those prisoners who are pursuing postsecondary education (believed in some cases to to lower recidivism rates by 48 percent), are unable to easily and meaningfully communicate with their educational institutions and professors in a way that facilitates their success.
Amy Ard is the founder of Motherhood Beyond Bars, a nonprofit with the particular mission of working with incarcerated mothers in order to enable and empower them for successful reentry, as well as the responsibilities and joys of motherhood after incarceration. For months now, Ard’s organization hasn’t been able to speak with their clients, assist with reentry planning, or ensure that pregnant mothers are receiving proper care.
Ard says that “cutting off communication with support on the outside does a real disservice not just to the women and the men who are in prison coming home. This negatively affects the communities on the other side of those prison walls that are going to be receiving them because they’re gonna start receiving people who have no preparation, who have no connection to outside organizations or agencies, and who haven’t built relationships with those they have on the outside.”
Despite these byzantine GDC policies, there are little benefits to anyone who is impacted. There isn’t a legitimate justification for this pernicious act of government overreach by the state prison agency. Not only will prisoners and their loved ones suffer from such harmful policies that serve absolutely no sound penological interest, but so too will communities.