A biweekly newsletter about the future of postsecondary education in prisons. Written by Open Campus national reporter Charlotte West.

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A biweekly newsletter about the future of postsecondary education in prisons. By Charlotte West.

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

    ‘We’re sorry, but something went wrong’

    For more than two weeks, every time I tried to log-in to GettingOut, a prison messaging app, I got the same error message: “We’re sorry, but something went wrong. We’ve been notified about this issue and we’ll take a look at it shortly.”

    As an education reporter covering prisons, I use GettingOut primarily to communicate with incarcerated writers and sources. I talk to people in multiple facilities across several states on a fairly regular basis. Suddenly, for all of them, it seemed like I had just disappeared. I got emails from people inside via their outside contacts asking if I was OK. I was no longer on their contact lists, and all of our messages were suddenly gone.

    The somewhat ironically named GettingOut is used by corrections departments in states including California, North Carolina, Oregon, Maryland, and Ohio. The company is a subsidiary of Viapath, a prison tech company formerly known as Global Tel Link. Together, Viapath and its biggest competitor, Securus, dominate more than 80% of the prison e-messaging market, according to a recent report from the Prison Policy Initiative. Prison telecom is an estimated billion dollar industry.

    When I couldn’t log-in to the app, I tried to go through regular customer service channels, calling Viapath’s 1-800 number several times, usually to find that the option to speak with a human had been disabled. At least six messages to the company’s general customer service address went unanswered.

    Several other reporters had experienced the same disappearing account phenomenon, and it wasn’t until we played the journalist card that we got some answers from the company. Some executives agreed to meet with me last week. Matt Caesar, chief strategy officer at Viapath, was the only one who answered any questions on the record. (The night before my meeting, my account and its content were restored.)

    It turned out that the glitch was due to “an unexpected issue during a system conversion from a prior provider to GettingOut” that affected less than 1% of users, a Viapath spokesperson wrote in an email. The company declined to share its total number of users, but my reporting from earlier this year found the company has deployed around 500,000 tablets in prisons.

    Source: “The rapid & unregulated growth of e‑messaging in prisons.” Prison Policy Initiative, April 2023.

    Here’s the thing: Everyone has crappy customer service stories to tell, whether it’s an airline, a bank, or calling the Education Department about student loans. That’s not really what this story is about.

    For people in prison, these issues cut off a lifeline to the outside world (even if just temporarily), and customer service is often effectively nonexistent. As Lyle C. May — an incarcerated writer I work with who was on the other end of the app issues — put it, “I’m in prison. I have no recourse.”

    For me, it was annoying that I couldn’t log-in to my account and spent several hours trying to fix the problem. But I had other communications channels, and I could spend time on addressing the issue as part of my work day. I wasn’t trying to send a goodnight message to my partner or look at photos of my kids.

    Once my account access was restored, I asked Lyle about this. “Incarcerated people don’t have the luxury of picking and choosing how to communicate,” he told me in a message. “Speed and certainty of the contact are the two top concerns.”

    Lyle, who is incarcerated in North Carolina, relies on his tablet to communicate with various editors and the academic adviser for his college program. While his adviser and I were the only two contacts that disappeared in this glitch, such problems imperil his professional life: We thought a short story (which, fittingly, was about the educational content offered on Viapath tablets) he had submitted for this newsletter was gone forever.

    The inconsistency embedded in prison tech makes getting a degree inside even more fraught. Losing contact with his academic adviser means that Lyle can’t quickly resolve issues related to completing his degree program, which is already incredibly challenging.

    Lyle didn’t have another way to contact customer service or tech support. There’s an app on his tablet where he’s supposed to be able to submit support requests, but he said there was no way to send a message.

    Lyle isn’t the only person I talk to inside who has had these tech issues. Heather Jarvis, who is incarcerated in Ohio, told me that because the state is in the process of converting from Securus to Viapath, there’s a technician who is holding open hours for in-person support while they work out the kinks, but “the line is insane.”

    So what did Viapath have to say about the challenges of customer support inside? “In each of the facilities, there’s different methods that an incarcerated individual has to request a refund or contact our support,” Caesar said during our meeting. “And that’s generally through the tablet.”

    In response to a follow-up question via email about what recourse people have inside when something goes wrong, a Viapath spokesperson also wrote that the company has recently invested in improving its customer service and will be establishing a direct line for friends and family to contact with concerns.

    Paying to be monitored and recorded

    Lyle and I have gone back and forth about this issue the last few days. I sent him 45 messages at $.25 each for a total of $11.25. On the inside, people in some states pay per minute of usage, and Lyle estimated he spent about 120 minutes, which cost another $1.20. So in all, we paid Viapath $12.40 to discuss Viapath.

    (To put this in context, Lyle says that most people in North Carolina prisons make between $0.40 and $1 a day. Lyle pays $15 for a package of 1,500 minutes — or around $0.01 a minute — of messaging and entertainment. If people can’t afford to buy a package, they pay $0.03 a minute.)

    There are other practical implications. Because incarcerated people don’t have a platform like Google Drive to back up their content, they often pay for messaging as a way to store their writing. The good news? Viapath assured me that no users lost their data with the glitch that I experienced last week and that data is backed up and restored.

    That brings me to another set of issues I saw this past week: privacy and information retention. The same companies that provide messaging also provide phone services. As the Prison Policy Initiative put it, “There are…grave privacy concerns when one company controls all communications channels to which incarcerated people have access.”

    All this data storage is a reminder that everything said or written over prison communication channels is being recorded. Generally, Caesar said, Viapath’s retention policies vary based on the facility — lasting potentially multiple years — and their contracts with corrections agencies. The company retains everything from phone calls to videos —”anything we’re recording and monitoring for them,” he said.

    This raises some important questions that educators will have to contend with as the tech landscape in prison continues to evolve. While people in prison have never had privacy when making a phone call, advances in technology allow for a greater degree of surveillance of incarcerated people — and their contacts on the outside — than ever before.

    Colleges working in this space have to weigh issues of student privacy with ease and speed of communication. Should messaging systems only be used to send mundane information? Who is responsible for providing tech support if a student sends an assignment that suddenly disappears? If a student submits an essay on their tablet, could the content later be used against them? These issues are especially relevant as prison tech companies continue to position themselves as providers of educational content — and in some cases of education itself.

    Lyle said educators and others on the outside are naive if they think they have any privacy or aren’t being censored when communicating with incarcerated people on digital platforms. Ultimately, the need to connect with the outside world trumps frustrations over privacy, which doesn’t really exist in prison anyway. “Incarcerated students have to communicate,” he said, “… by any means available, not necessarily the means they want.”

    ++ For more on the surveillance implications of prison technology, read Lyle C. May’s story for Scalawag.

    ++ The Prison Policy Initiative report provides more details on the current usage and economics of e-messaging, including price per message by state.

    ++ Related coverage: Read about how prison tech has – and hasn’t changed – in “The future of computer programming in prison.

    Johnny Pippins is finally out of prison after 26 years. His next stop is University of Iowa.

    Johnny Pippins walked out of Anamosa State Prison in Iowa on May 8, 2023 after receiving a commutation from Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker after spending 26 years in prison. Photo courtesy Tracy Pippins.

    Johnny Pippins is celebrating two major milestones: enrolling in a Ph.D. program and getting out of prison.

    Last week, Pippins got word that his commutation had been signed by Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker. Yesterday, Pippins, 53, walked out of Iowa’s Anamosa State Penitentiary after more than 26 years behind bars. He will start at the University of Iowa in the fall.

    Education has played a central role in Pippins’s life inside, and in his request for clemency. While he was incarcerated, he used an inheritance from his mother to pay for a bachelor’s degree and master’s degree. He wanted to pursue a doctoral program in sociology, but needed to get out of prison to do it.

    ++ Read the full story here. The article was also co-published by WBEZ Chicago.

    How a new Colorado law will help incarcerated graduates reduce their sentence through education

    Colorado Rep. Matthew Martinez, dressed in blue, poses with fellow state lawmakers and Colorado Gov. Jared Polis at the signing of a bill he sponsored that reduces the sentence of incarcerated students who get a college education. Photo courtesy of Lauren Reed.

    On April 12, Colorado Governor Jared Polis signed House Bill 1037 into law.

    When the law goes into effect in August, incarcerated people convicted of nonviolent offenses in Colorado can gain one year of “earned time” — time off their sentences or period of parole — for completing an associate or bachelor’s degree, 18 months for a master’s degree, two years for a doctoral degree, and six months for a credential or certificate that requires at least 30 credits.

    The number of prison education programs in Colorado and the United States is expected to grow in the next few years with the return of Pell Grants for people in prison as of July 1.

    The bill’s primary sponsor is Rep. Matthew Martinez, who is serving his first term in the Colorado house. Previously, he was the director of the prison education program at Adams State University. The goal of the bill is to incentivize incarcerated people or people who are on probation to pursue education, Martinez said.

    ++ Read the full interview — published with our partner Chalkbeat Colorado — here.

    Let’s connect

    Please connect if you have story ideas or just want to share your experience with prison education programs as a student or educator. You can always reach me at charlotte@opencampusmedia.org or on Twitter at @szarlotka.

    We know that not everyone has access to email, so if you’d like to have a print copy College Inside sent to an incarcerated friend or family member, you can sign them up here. We also publish the PDFs of our print newsletter on the Open Campus website.

    There is no cost to subscribe to the print edition of College Inside. But as a nonprofit newsroom, we rely on grants and donations to keep bringing you the news about prison education. You can donate here.

    Interested in reaching people who care about higher education in prisons? Get in touch at sales@opencampusmedia.org or request our media kit.

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    Open Campus national reporter covering the future of postsecondary education in prison.