The Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) has implemented a monitored email service in conjunction with the Advanced Technologies Group (ATG) — the same company which facilitates the BOP’s MP3 service — so that federal inmates can now email their family and friends. This service is accomplished via the use of the Trust Fund Limited Inmate Communication System (TRULINCS) and ATG’s Corrlinks.com.
TRULINCS is a computer-based electronic infrastructure utilized within the Federal Bureau of Prisons to allow inmate involvement in a number of aspects which involve their communications. This includes the maintaining of their contact lists (postal mail, email, and phone accounts), internal emails with staff, monitoring of their commissary accounts, law library research, institutional notifications to inmates, and other electronic features.
TRULINCS is operated via computers housed in inmate housing units and in other areas of their respective prisons. All inmates are allowed access to TRULINCS computers, but not all are allowed access to the electronic messaging service. Each inmate is issued two specific authorization codes — a seven-digit Phone Access Code number and a four-digit PIN number — which are used in conjunction with their inmate registration number in order to utilize a TRULINCS computer. This allows for individualized accounts within the TRULINCS system of computers. By utilizing individual accounts, different inmates can be restricted from specific features, if necessary (e.g., email restrictions).
When an inmate logs into their TRULINCS account, they have the option of updating their contact list. Within their contact list is a field for public electronic messaging. When an inmate inputs an email address for one of their contacts, a system-generated email is sent to the contact announcing the inmate’s desire to correspond with them electronically. The recipient then has the option of accepting the invitation by logging into Corrlinks.com and inputting a security code contained within the system-generated email. Once complete, both the inmate and the outside electronic contact are allowed to email one another.
The term “email” is somewhat of a misnomer because inmates don’t exactly email their outside contacts. Instead, they email a message to Corrlinks.com and their outside contact can then log in to read the message and respond to it. The actual message from the inmate is never delivered to the outside contact’s actual email account, although, the outside contact does have the option of receiving alerts from Corrlinks.com which notifies them to log in for new messages.
The messaging system itself does employ certain restrictions. For example, inmates and their outside contacts are only allowed to send plain, black text. Photos, attachments, and other non-black text inclusions are stripped from the message to an inmate and are not delivered. There is also a 13,000 character limit per email (this includes individual letters, numbers, punctuation marks, and spaces). As such, this service should be thought of as a very basic messaging service; more like a stripped-down, delayed instant messaging service than actual email.
All electronic messaging to federal inmates is free for outside contacts, but for the inmates, actual time spent on a TRULINCS computer in their housing unit (within the email folio) costs 5 cents per minute, whether reading an email or writing one. While some other states offer like services through Corrlinks.com which do incur a cost to the outside recipients (messages to Iowa State inmates cost 25 cents per message and messages to Oklahoma and Minnesota state inmates costs 30 cents per message), this cost is not applicable for electronic correspondence with federal prisoners.
In an effort to ensure the security of the institution and the safety of the public, all electronic messages are subjected to monitoring by institutional staff. While most aren’t, they all have the capability of being monitored. Note that because of this monitoring, emails from federal inmates typically take around 20 minutes to arrive to their outside contact’s Corrlinks.com account. Emails from Corrlinks.com to inmates, on the other hand, take around an hour to arrive.
In line with the email monitoring, inmates can be sanctioned for improper use of the monitored email system. This is the same with other kinds of disciplinary infractions. If an inmate is to be sanctioned with email loss — for an email-related infraction or another infraction — they will lose access to the TRULINCS email service for a period of time. The period of time will depend on the severity of the offense. It is not uncommon for inmates to lose email access for 30 to 160 days for a variety of disciplinary infractions.
The Federal Bureau of Prisons does impose email restrictions on certain inmates. Typically these restrictions are imposed upon persons who utilized email to commit the crime they are incarcerated for (e.g., solicitation of a minor for sexual activity, child pornography offenses, etc.) or if they have specialized computer knowledge which would allow them to circumvent the security procedures of the system. Inmates are not automatically banned from email usage because of their offense characteristics or because of their criminal history or any special technological skill set, but this can be an indicator for a more comprehensive review of their history to determine if the inmate should be banned. If an inmate has abused email or if they are deemed to be a management problem, they can either be banned from email altogether or can be subject to additional levels of monitoring (termed SIS monitoring).
By and large, the corrections industry has been opposed to technological innovation. Since prisons are first and foremost institutions of security and control, this isn’t surprising. What is surprising is that the tide seems to be turning. In the past several years, the Federal Bureau of Prisons — which is often thought of as a leader in the corrections industry world-wide — has made significant strides toward modernizing their inmate-oriented technological infrastructure. To this day, this means that inmates are now allowed to use telephones, electronic law libraries, and even MP3 players. Now they are also allowed to use monitored email to keep in contact with their friends and family. Indeed, on many levels, prison email services allow for more secure communications; the emails are essentially on file forever, and are subject to keyword monitoring. One would hope that tomorrow not only brings much more of the same, but inspires more state departments of corrections to do so, too.