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The Inmate Handbook for East Jersey State Prison (EJSP) states that the New Jersey Department of Corrections “believes that it is beneficial for inmates to maintain family ties and that the process of returning to the community is enhanced by family involvement.”

However, current departmental regulations governing the visitors lists and phone lists of inmates in addition to the technological limitations of the JPay prison email system result in outcomes contrary to that stated belief.  

Currently, inmates at EJSP are only allowed to have 15 adults registered on their visitors list. This may seem like a reasonable limit. But for inmates like Edward Fairley, it only scratches the surface. Fairley has five siblings, a wife, four adult children, and five adult grandchildren. He is only able to include other relatives or friends on the list by shuffling individuals on and off the list every 90 days.  

It is even more frustrating for Fairley than for most other inmates because he is also a former pastor and he has many congregants who are eager to see him but cannot be placed on his list.  

Such limitations were not always imposed on the inmates. In previous years, inmates could have as many visitors on their list as they wanted. The policy changed without any explanation in 2018.  

Limitations on phone lists go even further. Inmates are only allowed to have 10 names on their active phone lists, not including attorneys. Most inmates have to constantly update their phone lists to cycle their friends and family members’ phone numbers on and off if they want to maintain contact. There are additional restrictions that prevent inmates from calling business phone numbers so they cannot contact their family members at work, nor can they make three-way calls.

Another way inmates stay in touch with their family and friends is via Jpay, a private prison communications provider. Through Jpay tablets that can be synced at kiosks in the cell blocks, inmates can send and receive emails and 30-second videos, but the costs can be prohibitive, particularly for indigent inmates. 

Unlike Gmail or other outside email services, Jpay charges 35 cents per email and 70 cents per video in New Jersey. Since an inmate has to physically log on at the kiosk to send or receive emails and video, access is limited. Inmates are always jockeying to log on to the kiosks, and there is always an inconsiderate individual who insists on using their full allotted 20 minutes, which limits access for the others. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that two kiosks serve an average of 100 inmates. 

Restrictive policies compounded by the inadequacy of the technological system for emails and video make it difficult for inmates to build and maintain bonds with their families, which, ironically is something the corrections department explicitly deems to be important in the process of preparing to return to society.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

M. Yayah Sandi is a writer incarcerated in New Jersey. He requested that his first name be withheld.