Currently, and for several years now, the New JerseyDepartment of Corrections has banned inmates from calling cell phone numbers.In fact, inmates who place cell phone numbers on their authorized calling lists– even inadvertently – face harsh disciplinary sanctions, including time in solitary confinement, because the “no cell phones” rule is subject to a zero tolerance policy for noncompliance.
The rule means that inmates are only allowed to call landlines. Years ago, a rule like this might not have done much damage to an inmate’s support system because landlines were common in homes. But today, due to technological advancements and for economic reasons, many people use cell phones more often and even exclusively, sometimes doing away with home phones altogether as unnecessary and costly. Inmates whose loved ones are in these circumstances have become cut off from their families. Recently, the Department of Corrections has even banned inmates from adding landline telephone numbers that are combined into internet, phone & cable services by the cable companies. Despite being landlines, these numbers and carriers like Vonage and others that provide these services are banned from inmate phone lists.
Some inmates take the risk of attempting three-way calling, which is also subject to a zero tolerance rule within the prison, and are willing to break this rule to speak with their families. I have spoken to one prisoner who said that in the past he has paid several hundred dollars for a contraband cell phone, risking years in solitary, just so he could maintain contact with his 9-year-old daughter and his family. Others have given up on calling altogether and have only the mail system to communicate with the outside world.
Prison officials say that inmates are not suffering from lack of phone contact because they still have the opportunity to write letters. It seems that officials are trying to force prisoners to use the mail system and the electronic mailing system, which the institution makes money off of. Letters sent from the prison are often held and delayed going out, despite rules and policies prohibiting this. And regardless, letters are never a substitute for a child hearing a mother or father’s voice, and depriving both inmates and their families of this form of communication only serves to loosen the ties that will be essential when imprisoned people return to society.
The no-cell-phones policy is personal to me because I have lost friends, support, and even all contact with some people because of the rule. New Jersey Administrative Code section 10A allows “any concerned individual” to commence a petition to have a rule changed or relaxed, and I am initiating a petition to change this one.