Prison Journalism Navigator
Communicating With Prison Journalists
Journalism today requires reporters to respond, report and file stories quickly. The assumption is that they have access to cell phones, computers, email and the internet to do their work. But incarcerated people have none of that.
There are primarily four ways to communicate with them:
- Postal Mail: In the digital age, some people might consider the U.S. Postal Service on its way to obsolescence, but it is an essential mode of communication for anyone working with incarcerated individuals.
- Digital Messages: Depending on the state and prison, some incarcerated people have access to electronic messaging via prison technology and communication companies such as Securus Technologies’ JPay, Advanced Technologies Group’s CorrLinks and ViaPath’s (previously GTL) Connect Network. Note that JPay’s default character limit setting is for 20,000 including spaces, but GTL’s services (Getting Out and Connect Network) have a limit of only 2,000 characters or roughly 350 words.
- Phone Calls: Unlike in the outside world, phone calls are only possible in one direction — the person inside has to call you. In most cases, you will have to be added to their approved list first, which can take time. Not only that, phone calls are typically limited to 10 or 15 minutes at a time. This system, sometimes referred to as Inmate Calling Services (ICS), is a $1.2 billion market in the U.S. and dominated by ViaPath (previously GTL) and Securus. (See note on the use of contraband cellphones)
- In-Person Visits: In-person visits became difficult during the height of the pandemic, but they are coming back. As a general rule of thumb, all visits should be scheduled well in advance, so you can obtain security clearance and be placed on your contact’s approved list of visitors.
- Video Visits: Some prisons enable video visits which allows visitors to speak to incarcerated people over a closed video system. There are still rules of conduct, such as attire, that must be followed, but it is another option available in certain facilities through companies such as GTL. Information about the availability of this option can be found on the websites of the departments of corrections.
Regardless of the method you use, be prepared to factor in long lead times. None of these methods work like they do outside. Depending on the state and prison, there are varying levels of monitoring, which slows down the process. Add in the fact that prisons generally feel no obligation to facilitate any of this. If their rules aren’t followed on either end, you will not be able to reach the person. Lockdowns, quarantines, prison transfers and other unexpected situations can also hinder communications.
Here are a few tips to help you work directly with incarcerated writers:
1. Build in as much extra time as possible for the project and then double it.
When we send out mail, we usually factor in 3-4 weeks to get the first response. Even a JPay email could take 24 hours at minimum. In Illinois, it could take three days before a prison greenlights an inbound electronic message.
2. Have a backup plan.
Even if you plan well and are lucky enough to experience smooth communications, there is always the chance of sudden lockdowns, transfers to another prison, and isolated quarantines — especially in pandemic times. This means that, for important stories, you should always have a contingency plan. Don’t plan a story that depends on reporting from inside on a deadline.
3. For phone calls, schedule a window of time for phone calls and have a contingency agreement.
People in prison typically have designated windows of time to use the telephone, but they cannot schedule calls precisely because their ability to call depends on the availability of the phones. PJP usually schedules a half-hour window. If we miss the call, our writers know to try again immediately, followed by another attempt later in the day.
4. Make sure you are clear in your intentions, questions, requests and edits.
We recommend minimizing the number of times you must communicate with the writer. Even in the best of situations, each exchange will add to the time it takes to complete the project.
The vast majority of incarcerated people in this country are held in state prisons that are each governed by separate departments of corrections. That means that each state has a different mail policy that governs what people inside can receive and send out.
While there are a number of third party sites that provide mail restriction rules by state, always go to the official corrections department website, which is kept current. PJP has a Mailing Guidelines Resource page that summarizes rules that would be relevant to journalists and a link to information on each state’s official website.
Pay careful attention to required address formats on envelopes, page or ounce-limits, bans on double-sided pages and other restrictions such as prohibitions on stickers, which include address labels. A number of states also have engaged third party mail service providers, which provide a centralized address for letters. This appears to be a growing trend, and when the switch occurs, there will be no grace period, so we recommend always double checking the rules and regulations.
There are other rules that are not always written down about how envelopes must be addressed, and what information the sender must include. These rules are separate from the rules and restrictions that incarcerated people are governed by in their outgoing mail. A violation of any of the above and more means that mail could be rejected in either direction.
Note too that prisons nationwide are experiencing severe staff shortages and that has resulted in thinly staffed mailrooms in some cases. Some of PJP’s writers have reported that they have not received mail in months particularly during the omicron outbreak.
Finally, if any time has lapsed between your last communications with the person, look them up on the state corrections department site to make sure that their address has not changed. Prison transfers can happen often and without notice.
Note on Third-Party Mail Services
A few states outsource their mail handling to third party services, often located outside of their state. As of Feb. 2022, Pennsylvania uses Smart Communications, North Dakota uses Securus Digital Mail Center and North Carolina and Wisconsin uses TextBehind. PJP believes that this will be a growing trend.
Note that letters must be sent to the third-party service’s designated address or it will be returned to sender. Books, newspapers and legal mail should generally be sent directly to the prison, but the handling can be different by state.
Click here for PJP’s list of mailing guidelines by state.
We learned the hard way that if we don’t send mail to our writers in exactly the correct format to the correct address, many prisons will send the mail back or discard it. For example, if a state sets a maximum limit of 5-pages, and we send in 6 pages, the mail is rejected in its entirety. If we send mail to the general address, rather than the designated PO Box for incarcerated recipients, it is sent back.
The following are some of the practices PJP incorporates to streamline the process, particularly for mass mailings:
- Print single-side only: Many states specifically prohibit double-sided pages, and many only provide prints of digital copies of letters to recipients, and they miss the backsides of documents.
- Print in B&W, rather than color.
- Use the cheapest, lowest-weight paper and envelopes to keep postage cost to a minimum.
- Consistently double-check our writers’ locations in corrections’ databases to make sure it hasn’t changed. People are moved around without notice, and mail tends to get lost or discarded.
- Weigh each packet on a scale, and use the correct amount of postage (one Forever stamp only covers one ounce. It costs 20 cents per additional ounce, and USPS sells one-ounce stamps).
Click here for PJP’s list of mailing guidelines by state.
Digital messages are PJP’s preferred method of communication because it is currently the fastest and surest way to contact people in prison. We also believe that prisons are on their way to transitioning primarily to this format because it alleviates their workload, it solves concerns about drugs getting smuggled in through physical mail, and it’s cost effective. Some states like Florida are starting to scan physical mail and only sending digital copies to recipients. California has started distributing free tablets throughout its prisons.
There are many services but the most widely used at state prisons is JPay. Federal prisons and some state prisons are on CorrLinks. Other services have names like Securus, Connect Network and GettingOut.
Typically, a person inside uses a small tablet-like device that they either have purchased or have received for free as part of an agreement between the provider and the corrections department. In either case, incarcerated people and those who communicate with them are charged for every email they send. The services provide a box you can check if you’d like to send the recipient a stamp, so they can respond to you. (In California, prisons without JPay devices will print out the email you send and deliver it to the recipient, but they will not be able to respond to you.)
To establish communications with someone inside, you have to open an account, deposit money to pay for e-stamps and add the incarcerated person onto your account using their prison identification number. Each state sets their own price for e-stamps, which must be pre-purchased in bulk, but the rates are affordable if your interactions are limited. In New York, for example, the minimum purchase is $2.50 for 10 stamps. In California, it’s $5.25 for 20. (IMPORTANT NOTE: These communications services are primarily aimed at families and friends, and most if not all of them do not accept corporate credit cards. We spent hours on the phone with JPay to request an exception, but we were unable to do so.)
Once you open an account and add the person you’re trying to contact onto your approved list, you are generally good to go. The set-up process is a slight annoyance, but we consider this method to be a safe way to establish communications. You will easily be able to deauthorize a person should you need to. However, be thoughtful about what information you want to enter when you establish an account, because the holder information cannot be modified.
See PJP’s communication guidelines by state for information on the service each state uses.
A few factors to consider:
- Prison tablets are nothing like the iPads and Android tablets we use outside. They have small 7-inch or 8-inch screens, and there is no ability to use italics, indent or bold. Formatting options are also minimal to none. Most of the tablets have strict character limitations, which also include spaces, so some writers make minimal use of paragraphs (remember that each page of an electronic message requires an e-stamp to send). All of this means that you should be prepared to clean up works of submission in addition to the usual editing that might be required. A story with long paragraphs and lots of typos are not necessarily an indication of a writer’s ability to write. It may be a reflection of the clunkiness of the technology they are using.
- Messages are rarely sent and received instantaneously because prison systems and the different communications services have differing monitoring policies. In some prisons particularly in California you can only send in JPay mail, which is then printed and distributed; people inside do not have the ability to send electronic messages back. In Illinois, messages can be held up for two or three days in each direction before they are approved and sent on. In some cases, certain messages have been held back longer than others.
- Electronic mail appears to be more frequently screened for content. We’ve learned the hard way to be careful about how to word correspondences with writers in certain states. In some prisons, mentioning words like “warden” are automatically flagged for extra scrutiny. In others, sending in a W9 form could be problematic. Some PJP writers will deliberately misspell words.
Communicating with incarcerated writers can be a challenge for several reasons. Not only do you have to create an account with the designated phone provider, most states require the prisoner to register the names of those who they can call, and many of them put a limit on the number of names each person can list. People inside are constantly sifting through their lists to make sure they can speak with everyone they want to connect with.
Because the phone call always has to be generated from inside prison, it also means that the incarcerated person bears the cost of the call if you do not prearrange with them to call collect. It’s also possible to deposit money into a prepay account that is deducted when anyone registered on your account calls.
The two most popular phone service providers are Connect Network and Securus. The state corrections department’s site will provide information on the service they use. Note that some states and services do not recognize voice over IP lines and will not connect calls to them. Many states ban three-way calling.
See PJP’s communication guidelines searchable by state for information on the service each state uses.
Be aware that all phone calls are monitored and recorded. Be careful with what you say or ask about. For example, if your contact admits to past uncharged criminal activity on the call, additional time could be added to their sentence. All communication should be kept within professional bounds.
We recommend building in plenty of time and having a backup plan in case your contact cannot call on the agreed upon time or day. Even if a writer puts an editor’s name on a list, approval could take days. Prisoners also cannot receive inbound calls, and it’s difficult to schedule calls because phones are subject to availability during a limited window of time.
Know that interviewing people inside on a set schedule as well as live interviews are impossible. However, PJP has been successful with recorded interviews using the TapeACall app. We usually build in about a week’s lead time. Check out PJP’s collaboration with CBSN Bay Area for an example of how we have incorporated pre-recorded interviews into video programming.
Note on contraband cellphones: It’s difficult to pinpoint the exact number of contraband cellphones behind bars, but in California alone, there were 13,450 phones confiscated in 2018, according to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. While it’s tempting to communicate through them, one of our formerly incarcerated writers asked that you not do so. “Not only does it put the incarcerated at risk of losing ‘good-time’ credits, it also could put the organization … at risk of losing authorization to communicate with the incarcerated,” he said.
Like with everything else, the rules about visitations are different state by state, and departments of corrections have a page that lays out their rules and regulations. As a general rule of thumb, all visits should be scheduled well in advance, so you can obtain security clearance and be placed on your contact’s approved list of visitors. There will also likely be limitations about the number of visitors allowed at once, length of visitation time and a dress code. Visits can consist of window visits, contact visits or, more recently, video visits, and there will be rules that govern each.
We recommend that you follow all rules precisely. Any deviation or push back can result in the cancellation of a visit. Regardless of your legal rights as a journalist or your contact’s rights to meet with the press, we would advise against asserting them in this context because your contact will be the one that faces reprisal.
If you would like to schedule an official media interview, with or without video cameras or cameras, you will need to contact the public information officer.
Here are some general tips:
- Schedule visits as far in advance as possible because the security clearance can take weeks.
- Check COVID-19 protocols. Some states might still require masks, others may not. The rules may also change depending on the severity of cases at the time.
- Pay careful attention to the dress code. The general rule is to avoid revealing clothing or colors that the incarcerated residents wear. But some prisons set even more specific rules that require shoulders and knees to be covered. They also might ban ripped jeans, specific colors or certain clothing such as those with slogans. Body jewelry can be an issue too. Some prisons require individuals to remove all piercings and jewelry, although they may make exceptions for wedding rings. Many prisons ban bras with underwires.
- Don’t forget your ID. Be sure to bring the same form of ID that you used to receive your approval to visit. If you submitted your passport number, you need to bring your passport.
- Research what you are permitted to bring inside. Many prisons will allow a pen and a notebook, but not all. If you are going as a civilian rather than as a reporter, some prisons will require you to put everything into a locker before entering the visiting room. If you are allowed to bring a pen and notebook inside, make sure it is a ballpoint and does not have any spring that could be removed from it. Also, make sure you don’t have any paper clips or staples attached to your notebook as those can be confiscated. You will not be allowed to carry a cell phone or purse inside. When we visit prisons, we keep our personal belongings to a minimum and leave everything in the car, except for our ID, car keys and the items we plan to bring inside. (Pro tip: Make sure that you keep valuables in your car out of sight. Theft in prison parking lots is not uncommon).
- Be prepared for a clothing and shoe check — you may be patted down and asked to remove your shoes and show your soles to demonstrate that you are not hiding anything. Some prisons ban certain types of boots and open-toed shoes. Women may be taken into a private room, where they will be asked to shake out their bra for the same reason.
- Bring quarters. Most visitation rooms have vending machines, and your contact may appreciate snacks and beverages they don’t typically have access to during your visit. Some machines may accept dollars, but the slot may not always work.
- Research logistics like visitor parking in advance and don’t be late. Prisons are juggling many variables including the number of people allowed in the visitation room at one time. You don’t want to risk your visit being canceled because you are late.