Incarcerated People Need Access to Phone Apps

Nov 15, 2022

What should rehabilitation look like within New York State prisons? How do we motivate incarcerated people to be productive in such an oppressive and toxic environment?

While programs are made available, many people behind bars do not feel inspired to make necessary changes. However, there is something that can be implemented within correctional facilities that will contribute significantly to rehabilitation. It will also reduce violence, suicide, and substance use disorders, as well as promote a healthy way of living, both mentally and emotionally.

Imagine receiving an urgent text from a friend or family member requesting that you call them. Maybe you just feel like speaking with someone because you are feeling down, or maybe it’s a special occasion and you want to wish them well. Whatever the case, how many times have you spoken with someone and felt better afterward; or you were able to brighten someone else's day? We all can benefit from healthy communication.

Now, imagine that your ability to make this call is hindered because your smartphone or tablet cannot place phone calls. It’s the middle of winter and you grab your coat, gloves, and hat and head outside hoping to find a pay phone that actually works—or even exists. Twenty minutes later, you find one, and think to yourself how fortunate you are, considering that pay phones are deemed obsolete technology. Now you scramble to find change while exposing your hands to freezing temperatures. This painstaking process begins to frustrate you. Finally, you call the number, but no one answers. You call again, and still no answer. You wonder why your phone or tablet isn’t equipped to place a phone call. If it were, maybe you could have made contact with your loved one when you really needed to. Your night is now disrupted with worries and leaves you feeling depressed and lonely.

In 2019, the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (NYS DOCCS) entered into a contract with JPay, a company that provides tablets to the prison population. These tablets are capable of receiving and sending emails and purchasing music, games, and movies. We are also able to download educational videos, books, and 30-second videograms sent by family and friends. However, the general prison population has not been provided with the phone app. Only those who are housed in the SHU (Special Housing Unit) have access to the phone app on their tablets.

Access to phones in general population is extremely limited and presents a host of issues. Whether it’s time management, the number of phones available, security issues, or extreme weather conditions, this is creating barriers for one to maintain family ties and reduce the stress that comes with serving time. Many of us must attend outside recreation in freezing temperatures, snow, and rain to call home. Once in the yard, we must wait to be called to use the phone by an officer. At times, we are only provided with 10 minutes to speak with our loved ones because of the limited number of phones and the many people waiting in line. Men stand around hoping their name is called, or to "hit the lottery" (as they say) to use the phone. Some do not get a chance to use the phone and head back to their cells angry and/or depressed.

Phone calls are especially important during holidays when many are feeling down. Other situations that present a need to have immediate access to a phone may be a death in the family, the need to contact legal representation, or a special occasion for a child, like a birthday or graduation. During difficult times, a child needs to hear from a caregiver. A young incarcerated man recently expressed concern and aggravation to me because his son was being bullied in school, and he wasn't able to make immediate contact to comfort him. I have had similar experiences. When I contracted COVID-19, I spent seven days quarantined with no access to a telephone. When I was able to read my emails, I was brought to tears when I read these words from my daughter: "Dad, I'm worried about you! I heard you were sick. I miss you and I love you. Please email me back. Let me know how you are doing." The lack of communication not only effects the incarcerated, but our families as well.

Many of the incarcerated feel that not allowing the phone app is punitive in nature. It is viewed as an undeserving reward. What people fail to realize is that incentives can change behavior. Adding the phone app to tablets will reduce violence and promote a safer environment, while also minimizing the effects of stress and depression attached to doing time, especially during the pandemic. Think about the lives it will also save by providing a suicide hotline number for those suffering from mental health issues. They would have immediate access to a professional, or even a loved one. It will also reduce the spread of COVID-19, as we will not have to share phones.

With so much political pressure to repeal the ban on solitary confinement, placing the phone app on tablets is a proactive approach that could reduce the number of people serving time in SHU. It will serve as an incentive for the incarcerated to stay out of trouble and minimize the stress and frustration that comes with limited access to phones. Stress and frustration are triggers for violence and drug use, and both are linked to the mental health crisis in New York prisons. Our system must begin to focus on the way we are doing time, because how we do affects who we become and who we are when reentering society. Something as simple as providing the phone app can directly affect recidivism rates. You have to wonder if the system strategically uses this (and many other) microaggressions to fuel mass incarceration. Sometimes the problem is not so evident; it can be as subtle as limited access to phones!

A petition to allow the phone app on prison tablets in New York State can be found at

David Sell is a husband, grandfather, writer, hospice volunteer, and advocate for prison reform. In an attempt to bring about awareness and create change, he writes for the millions of families and people who have been impacted by mass incarceration. He can be reached on JPay at David Sell, 97b2642, NYS DOCCS Inmate Services.

Vera believes in using our platforms to elevate diverse voices and opinions, including those of people currently and formerly incarcerated. Other than Vera employees, contributors speak for themselves. Vera has not independently verified the statements made in this post.