Father Gordon MacRae updates readers on the GTL ‘Inspire’ Tablet, some Concord prison blues, his theatrical debut, and other news alerts from These Stone Walls.
As last year came to a close, I posted our annual review as “The Hits & Misses of 2017.” The last segment of it was entitled, “A Big Hit Coming Soon: Tablets in Prison.” Many readers have been asking about the status of this prison’s venture into allowing electronic tablets and what features will be available to prisoners.
At this writing, it is not yet a reality but the GTL Company has been drilling, installing conduits, and setting up a Wi-Fl dome above this prison. So I wanted to give you an overview of what this system will entail and the ways it will change the day-to-day life of this prisoner and our other friends behind These Stone Walls.
Some readers asked me about the wisdom of allowing prisoners to have access to the Internet. That is a misunderstanding. Some American prisons allows prisoners to have limited Internet access but it will not be allowed here. The security issues are many, and U.S. prisons limit all prisoners – from the most dangerous to the most benign with the same one-size-fits-all system.
The GTL Corporation has developed a communications system marketed specifically for prisons. Several facilities that house the 2.2 million prisoners in the United States are having a hard look at it. Some prions, especially federal prisons, have been using this technology for years while state prisons have been lagging behind.
The device is an Android-based hand-held tablet with an 8-inch color touch screen. Prisoners will have Wi-Fl access only to GTL’s “Intranet” platform from which prisoners or their families or friends can purchase apps and “link units” for services. There have been wrinkles and setbacks which have lengthened the initial rollout period, but visible progress has been made.
As 2018 dawned, Father John Zuhlsdorf reposted my “Hits & Misses” segment about tablets on his popular Father Z’s Blog. Over the few weeks after he posted it, many of his readers were kind and generous with assisting me in the purchase of a tablet and some of the programs and apps that will come with it. I was, and am, very grateful for this.
I expect – or at least hope – that we will be able to purchase the GTL tablet in coming weeks. Nothing in this setting ever happens quickly. This will be an enormous change in the day-to-day life of your friends behind these walls, and I want to give readers an overview of how.
The big news for prisoners is the individual tablet’s telephone capability. The use of prisoner telephones has been a huge problem in many prisons. As sentences grew longer, and state prisons became overcrowded, the prison infrastructure did not grow with it. Back in the nightmarish situation in which I previously lived eight to a cell, described in “Hebrews 13:3,” there were three prisoner pay telephones for a housing area built for 48 prisoners but holding 96.
That meant 32 prisoners per available phone, and often at least one phone was out of order at any given time. Add to this the slashing of programs, jobs, and self-improvement opportunities from prison budgets year after year. The result has been an “Idle inmate” unemployment rate of over 50-percent with large numbers of young men with nothing to do all day but get into trouble or try to connect with the outside world.
With overwhelmed prison staffs, this meant that in some areas, gangs of prisoners controlled the telephones, and the result has been exploitation and violence. Three years ago, I was appointed to a small committee tasked with negotiating prison conditions. One of our efforts was to lobby for an increase in the number of telephones in order to decrease prison violence, but this never materialized due to budget constraints.
The other side of this problem is that in the place where I am living now, all the telephones are outside. I have had to bundle up in subzero weather on many mornings at 6:00 AM so Father George David Byers could hear my teeth chatter as he read messages and comments to me from These Stone Walls. Often, I have to wait outside for over an hour for an available phone.
The GTL Tablet system promises to end all this. The big news here, and one of two primary features that prisoners most look forward to is that GTL has an internet-based telephone system for its tablets. This will in effect give every prisoner who purchases a tablet his own personal connection to the outside. I will be able to place calls right from inside my 60-square foot cell using a headset that connects to the tablet.
The GTL tablet has security features including an algorithm to filter certain keywords and phrases. This will flag certain calls for monitoring and review. For the majority of prisoners who simply want to talk with their friends and families without the usual gang and cartel activity going on, this is welcome news.
All U.S. prisons allow telephone use by prisoners because there is clear connection between fostering family and community ties and lower recidivism rates. Here is a short primer on how this works. GTL has a per-minute charge for each call from prison and will maintain a prepaid telephone account for each prisoner.
I simply make a monthly deposit into my telephone debit account and I can then place calls at no charge to the called parties. Of course, at pre-arranged times I often call those who help with These Stone Walls, and others who have requested that I call them. Since These Stone Walls began in 2009, the lack of access to communications has been my biggest obstacle.
MESSAGES FROM BEYOND THE WALLS
The tablet system has a feature that will allow friends and contacts to go to the GTL web site to send an instant message directly to my tablet to request that I call them. This is the first time anyone from the outside will be able to contact me directly by any means other than snail mail.
The second most anticipated feature of the tablets is the email system. GTL will charge a per-message fee to both prisoners and their contacts for the use of email. The cost per message is less than that for First Class postage, but the benefit is that these messages will appear directly on our individual tablets in a few hours instead of days. Messages will also allow for the attachment of a photograph or a brief video file.
The prison mail staff here has to open and screen thousands of incoming letters per day so the prison’s interest is to reduce the volume of incoming mail. This, in turn, will reduce other problems such as the insidious ways some prisoners have devised to use mail for bringing illicit drugs into the prison system.
GTL’s interest in all this is, of course, to make a profit. The downside is that sending mail directly from Gmail or other private accounts will not work. Anyone who wants to communicate via email with me can only do so by opening an email account with GTL and purchasing a block of messages. I believe that the purchased blocks will be twenty messages for $5.00 with a length limit of 2,000 characters, about the size of a standard letter.
Of course, messages sent to me from other email services or to the Contact Form at the Contact Page of These Stone Walls can be copied and pasted into a GTL format and sent to me by those who assist with TSW. This may all seem strange to those who have enjoyed open Internet access and free email for years, but from my perspective in prison, the availability of almost instant electronic communication opens a world that most here have long been deprived of.
When this service comes online in coming weeks, I will let readers know more about how it works. A big plus for me is that the people who help with These Stone Walls will also be able to copy and paste your comments into a GTL email, and I will see them in hours instead of weeks later. I also will have a greater opportunity to respond to some comments.
I will not be able to see These Stone Walls or other sites with this tablet, however. Only paid features provided by GTL can be accessed. For modest fees, the GTL system has features such as eBooks, streaming music and movies, games, and many educational programs. With the exception of eBooks, not a lot of this will interest me, but the expansion of communications is an enormous change from what prisoners here have had in the past. I will have more information about how this works – hopefully soon.
GIVE MY REGARDS TO BROADWAY
There are some talented, people where I now live. If you read Claire Dion’s guest post, “My Visit with Pornchai Maximilian Moontri,” then you know that our friend, Pornchai-Max is among them. My position on the Communications Board has enabled me to get to some parts of the prison I would normally not see.
One of them is the Woodworking and Crafts Shop where Pornchai has created some magnificent pieces. Two of them, which he designed and created with our friend, J.J. Jennings, were displayed at the end of Claire’s guest post linked above.
I wrote a post called “The Days of Our Lives” that describes some of the layout and a typical day where we live. When Pornchai and I first moved here back in July 2017, we were astonished by some of the creative talent around us. A few weeks after we arrived, some of the prisoners here produced a concert on a Saturday afternoon from 1:00 to 4:00 PM.
Down on the playing fields below, they set up amplifiers and a staging area all borrowed from the Recreation Department. I had minimal expectations and took a sort of ho-hum attitude to it all until the music started. It was a production on a par with some of the best PBS fundraiser concerts shown almost nightly in recent months.
And it had everything from hard rock, to country, to blues guitar, an amazing drum solo, and rap. I have never been a fan of urban rap, but my friend, Joseph wrote and performed two original rap productions that won me over. You read of Joseph recently in his guest post, “Against a Brick Wall: AYoung Man’s Survival in Prison.”
A prisoner well into his 80s picked up a banjo to sing “Folsom Prison Blues” by Johnny Cash resulting in a standing ovation. The concert was so well performed by prisoners that on the following Saturday it was moved to the gymnasium so the entire prison population could attend.
I have encountered some other standout talent here as well. A young man where I live – a 32-year-old who has been in prison since age 17 – is an accomplished playwright. It turns out that he has written and published a number of stage productions, and several of them have been produced here with a theater group that he organized.
Because of the severe limits on writing here, he is able to accomplish only one screenplay every two years. Each one usually involves two showings in the prison gymnasium where a stage is constructed and then dismantled for every event. “Jim’s” current screenplay, which he completed just weeks ago, is a satirical comedy. He asked me to read it one day last week, and I found it to be astonishing.
So I asked Jim if perhaps I might attend some of the rehearsals, interview some of the cast, and write about it after its debut on April 28. Jim spoke with the cast and they were all in agreement. So I attended my first stage rehearsal last week.
While sitting there watching this amazing rehearsal unfold to the very end, Jim turned to me and said, “We have to stop here because we haven’t found someone to play the lead character in the final scene.” The entire cast then looked at me. Before I even had a chance to get up and flee, I accepted an invitation to make my stage debut cast in this as yet untitled production.
I have been drafted to play President Donald Trump in a satire opposite Kim Jong of North Korea. It is by no means a partisan or political affair. All I can say is that it’s going to be huge, really big. We’re going to make American drama great again. We are going to transcend a wall and the best part…? We’re going to get Kim Jong to pay for it.
I am told that the props committee is already constructing the necessary hairpiece. There will be photos. I’ll keep you posted. Give my regards to Broadway.
Note from Father Gordon MacRae: Please share this post. Even in the worst Soviet gulags, stories like the one above emerged as prisoners used creativity to transcend oppression and despair. Even prison cannot be all gloom and doom. You might also like these other tales from the lighter side of These Stone Walls: