“One of us goes in, and we all go through it …” — Drake, “Headlines”
Incarceration is seldom a solo affair. It’s true that the individual person subjected to carceral control bears the brunt of the physical, emotional, psychological, social and financial costs of being forced to surrender their freedom to the state. However, this painful price isn’t paid by the incarcerated person alone: their friends, family members and others who care about them suffer their own sizeable share of loss, sadness, fear and frustration precipitated by their loved one’s incarceration. My family, that is my mom, my sister, Toni, and I, know this reality viscerally well.
I have a younger brother, Theo (not his real name), who is currently serving a multi-year sentence in one of Ontario’s federal correctional institutions. This latest stint follows more than a decade of him being serially ensnared by the jaws of a justice system that has been gnawing away at his humanity since his teens.
My brother’s experiences in the justice system have led my family and I to frequently interface with both federal and provincial correctional institutions across Ontario. Loving and supporting Theo over these years of him being bounced through the correctional complex has led us to become intimately aware of how hard it is to provide a consistent, rehabilitative presence in the life of a loved one who is locked up.
The correctional facilities in our province are most typically located in rural Ontario and/or at least one or more hours outside of the city of Toronto (where my family lives). As such, keeping connected with Theo has required near-total reliance on the relatively rudimentary and primitive technologies the state provides or permits for inmates to keep connected with and be supported by their friends and families, such as high-priced phone calls or visits in person.
While we do our utmost to regularly have in-person visits with Theo, having him hundreds of kilometres away has meant that countless collect calls on a sometimes spotty signal have been our main mode of communication and contact with Theo.
When I asked my mom — whom my brother calls most often — what it costs to remain connected with Theo, she tells me of the challenging trade-off she bears of keeping connected:
“I worry about Theo and his well-being a lot, so I try to keep in touch as best as I can. But you wouldn’t believe what these people are charging me. It’s easily $300 a month in calls. It’s oppressive and unfair. Even if he calls and only gets an answering machine, it’s logged as an actual call at a cost of $1.50 each time.
“I don’t know how other families do this. But if I don’t pay, Theo’s just there thinking we’ve forgotten or don’t care about him. How does that help him get back on track? It would be emotionally and psychologically damaging.”
Because of our love and commitment to Theo’s healing and rehabilitation, my family and his friends are terribly well acquainted with the arcane, cumbersome and outmoded state-structured ways and means that now mediate the relationship between inmates and their loved ones.
During a recent in-person visit with Theo, for which my mom, sister and I trekked hours to and from rural Ontario, I had the opportunity to ask him about what it’s like keeping connected with his family and friends primarily through high-priced calls:
“Honestly bro, there’s no comparison, I prefer the visits. To be able to touch and hug you, T and mom. But if all I can get is the phone calls that’s fine.
“It’s nice to hear your voices and chat about what’s going on in your lives, but it’s hard because not seeing you and just hearing you means I start thinking and thinking and thinking about what it’s like on the outside. I start thinking about what everything looks like at home and in the places I’m used to being with family, friends. You know, spending time, having fun, or just relaxing.
“The worst is during the holidays. While it feels good to think about you all and it gives me a boost of positive energy and keeps me going, it also can make my time more difficult sometimes because I’m not experiencing any of that. It’s like my imagination is taking me to a place, while my situation has me stuck here. So it’s hard to be in two very different places mentally and physically and still be at ease doing my time in peace. It’s painful. I miss you guys a lot.”
My family and I regularly share our frustration with each other that our justice system has yet to adopt technologies that can facilitate easier and more fluid video and audio communications, so that there’s less reliance on overly expensive telephone service providers. Studies consistently show that remaining connected with loved ones plays a critically positive role in the rehabilitative process of inmates by reducing the chances of recidivism. However, everything required to be present and provide productive support to Theo is harder than it needs to be.
To those who have never been closely connected with a person who is incarcerated, it’s difficult to fully explain this reality to them: it is not just distance and time that separates you from your loved one, but generations of technology.
The average person in a modern city can communicate and arrange a visit, and can send money, clothes, music, letters, and exchange information with others around them almost instantaneously through a few clicks and scrolls on a smartphone. Doing any of this with an incarcerated loved one is like interacting with a warped time portal. It’s like reaching backwards in time to connect with someone stuck in 1997.
Acts of communication and sending any kind of physical goods are insufferably slower, much more expensive and far less reliable with a loved one in prison.
At least one jurisdiction outside of Canada, namely New York City, has recognized the overly burdensome cost of telephone communications with inmates, recently announcing that such phone calls will now be free, saving inmates and their families upwards of an estimated $8 million (U.S.) a year. No such plans appear to be in the works in any Canadian jurisdictions.
If our justice system adopted more affordable and accessible technologies to humanize interfacing with loved ones who are incarcerated, not only would this benefit the rehabilitative process, but it would also enhance each family’s ability to support effective reintegration of their loved one upon release. This could be done, for instance, through adoption of voice over internet protocol and/or secure audio video conferencing technologies, or even through security-enhanced versions of communications apps like Skype that many of us take for granted in our daily personal and professional lives.
Versions of such audio-video conferencing technology are already used to facilitate remote court appearances throughout Ontario courts. Facilitating greater access and communications through appropriate technological advances in our prison system would almost certainly relieve some of the pressure and impending pitfalls that exist following release of incarcerated individuals. This would be so by allowing friends and families to more actively engage in developing a collaborative reintegration plan.
Basic technological upgrades could play a critical role in breaking this cycle of recidivism, a cycle that saddles far too many Ontario families, resulting in a great cost to not only them, but to the general public through the taxes used to maintain our prisons and broader criminal justice system.
When I’ve had the opportunity to express my thoughts to politicians and policy-makers about the technological advances needed to more meaningfully bring our systems from being correctional in mostly name alone, there’s often a tone of fear, an overemphasis on the need for ensuring “security” of inmates, their relations and the broader public. However, in this post-9/11 age where hundreds of thousands of people, parcels and pieces of information flow through the highly securitized environments of airports each day, state actors have turned to technology to enhance efforts to ensure security in highly sensitive environments.
This is not to say that airport security systems are flawless and don’t reflect and reinforce racial profiling and other forms of discrimination; the point is that state actors lack consistency when it comes to the issues of technology and securitized environments of the state. For instance, all air travellers in Canada can get on a plane with such things as hygiene products and everyday personal objects like a hand-held mirror or a chapter book, while visitors to correctional facilities are absolutely forbidden from carrying any of these items into the spaces where they visit their incarcerated loved ones.
Until we extend technological innovations to our state’s carceral spaces, as a society we collectively bear the unsustainably high costs of a failed system that is increasingly providing justice in name alone. If we’re truly committed to our carceral institutions being correctional or rehabilitative, this requires deliberate and substantial investments in sustainable technological mechanisms that allow family members and friends who have a healthy presence in inmates’ lives to provide better, more reliable supports for their loved ones.
To do this requires increasing access to technologies that allow inmates and their family members to communicate with one another without limitations like having price-gouging phone calls or in-person visits as their only options.
During our last visit with Theo, I shared my thoughts on modernizing communications technologies to diminish the utterly dehumanizing experience of incarceration. We were discussing the details of this very piece. While Theo was supportive and said he’s hopeful something comes of it, he also let off a somewhat dismissive chuckle.
I sensed his hesitation and skepticism. To try to reassure him that there’s value in this discussion, I repeated to him that my intention is to use this piece to help advance this important conversation on using technology to enhance justice.
He turned to me and said, “I hope it does that, too. But you know what they say, brother.” I pause, wondering. “What do they say?” Referring to Drake’s song, “Club Paradise,” he cleverly quips, “When all is said and done, more is always said than done.”
For his sake, for that of my family’s and all those supporting a loved one currently incarcerated, this simply can’t continue to be the case.
This article was supported by Digital Justice Lab, a member of the Tides Canada shared platform.Anthony Morgan is a Toronto-based human rights lawyer, public servant and member of a family affected by incarceration. Twitter: @AnthonyNMorgan