Prison Correspondence
December 17, 2009 1:18 PM   Subscribe

How can people in the U.S. prison system communicate with the outside world? I understand that this varies depending on the type of prison, and possibly the state, but I have found no information.

I have no experience with the U.S. penitentiary system, but I understand that prisoners are allowed to write letters. Do they have to pay for postage? Are prisoners allowed to make phone calls? At what frequency? Are there any prisons allowing emails?

Similarly, what ways are available for the outside world to contact prisoners?

Any information or links regarding prisoners' means of communication with the outside world is appreciated.
posted by daboo to Human Relations (10 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
You might be interested in this piece on smuggled in cell phones Not sure about more legit ways.
posted by tachikoma_robot at 1:26 PM on December 17, 2009

Best answer: Inmates can send mail if they have the money to buy paper, pencil, stamps, which many of them don't. There is also a very high level of illiteracy among inmates, so writing letters is not much of an option for them. Inmates in most places can make occasional phone calls. These are typically collect, it's a big scam run by some phone companies who charge way way more than other companies. Inmates generally do not have access to computers or the internet.
posted by mareli at 1:34 PM on December 17, 2009

As you note, this really can vary. I correspond with a prisoner in a maximum-security prison in Illinois, for example; he can send and receive letters as much as he likes (he pays for postage himself) and can make phone calls to his lawyers; I don't know if he has phone privileges for his family (though my sense is that he does not), and he's certainly never been able to phone me in the 10+ years we've known each other. He can receive reading material (newspapers, magazines, and paperback books; no hardcover books) as long as it's not obscene or considered dangerous. Access to email (or to the internet in general) is strictly forbidden. I would guess these would not be uncommon rules for maximum security prisons in general, but I'm sure there are variances among institutions and states, and certainly variances for medium- or minimum-security prisons as well.
posted by scody at 1:34 PM on December 17, 2009 [1 favorite]

Here's the This American Life episode about a radio show in Texas. Here's the description: "Over two decades ago, not long after he got out of Texas prison for robbery, Ray Hill got a job at his local public radio station, KPFT in Houston. He started a weekly program about Texas prisons that's now the leading muckraking voice in the state when it comes to exposing graft and corruption in prison facilities there. He also does something else that makes it one of the most unusual and remarkable radio programs in the country: for most of an hour, he takes calls from people whose families are in prison; they talk to their loved ones behind bars, over the radio. Ray explains, and we hear clips from his show."
posted by jujube at 1:41 PM on December 17, 2009 [3 favorites]

Inmate phone calls.
posted by mareli at 1:45 PM on December 17, 2009

There's no such thing as the US prison system. There's the federal system and the 50 state's systems. Suffice it to say nobody's about to address all 50 states on askme.

With the Federal system, the closest thing to a "U.S. Prison", phone time can be bought at the commissary. There's also a system called CorrLinks that purports to give inmates monitored email access slowly rolling out. Who inmates can contact is strictly regulated, primarily to prevent harassment from inmates with not much more to lose, and also to hamper the reach of organized crime.
posted by pwnguin at 2:19 PM on December 17, 2009

Best answer: Support groups for families of inmates generally have this information available. is a good resource.
posted by Sidhedevil at 5:09 PM on December 17, 2009

Access to a phone and the frequency of its availability are also going to be a factor not only of the individual prison system but also of the prisoner's behavior record and their status with the COs. A prisoner in solitary confinement as punishment for fighting is probably not going to be given access to a phone, which explains why contraband cell phones are such a booming trade.
posted by Rhomboid at 7:31 PM on December 17, 2009

They're also unmonitored and cheaper. Throw in pornography and it's a triple threat.
posted by pwnguin at 9:52 PM on December 17, 2009

Depends on what kind of message you're trying to get out. If you're trying to do something shady (ordering a hit), there's always the low-tech alternative: talking in code.

Ask MergyFergy: quergying the hergy mergy.
posted by one more dead town's last parade at 7:11 AM on December 18, 2009

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