Time, Online

"Time, Online," is a Future Tense package that explores how technology is changing prison as we know it. I proposed, commissioned, and edited the articles within the package, which (with two exceptions) were written and illustrated by incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people. The articles cover everything from what it's like to text your partner from prison to how to Google from the inside. 

There’s a Prison Black Market Dedicated to Jailbreaking Tablets. It’s a Window Into a Much Deeper Problem.

The first and only time I used a jailbroken tablet while I was in prison, I almost got caught. When I was incarcerated in Florida for a property crime I committed to support my addiction, the only thing that separated the holidays from any other day was being able to talk to my family. Without that, the maelstrom of prison overshadowed any nostalgia I might have otherwise held on to. So when I couldn’t use the phones one Thanksgiving because they were malfunctioning, a very common problem, I was despondent.

I’d Never Owned a Computer. After 17 Years in Prison, I Finally Have One of My Own.

A professor is attempting to teach 24 of us how to log in to Canvas, a learning management system many universities use to collect student work. She says something about saving our homework to the student cloud, but I’m not paying attention. I’m lost in my obsession with learning what these laptops are actually capable of. I open all the apps—Microsoft Excel, Word, PowerPoint. And then, momentarily, I freeze: Google Chrome. I open the app and am immediately let down, realizing I can access only a few URLs preapproved by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. Still, the gates are ajar, and it feels like freedom—or at least a road there.

For 13 Years, I Dreamed of Getting Out of Prison. When I Did, I Was Followed by an Invisible Fence.

While serving 13 years in federal prison, I had many visions of freedom. I saw myself coming and going just like everyone else—taking long trips to see my kids and spending time with my aging parents. I dreamed of big, exotic vacations, and also of small moments sitting on the front porch swing. On the inside, people spend a lot of time mulling over ways to make those visions come true.

My Girlfriend and I Used to Rely on Weekly Letters to Communicate. Then, “Texting” Came to My Prison.

The other night, I tried to send my girlfriend, Faye, a goodnight text, but the unreliable messaging app on my prison-issued tablet froze. I restarted the tablet to no avail. The same glitch occurs most nights between 7 and 10 p.m., the peak hours of tablet usage at the prison where I’m incarcerated in North Carolina. Once again, I gritted my teeth, preparing for a long night without connection to the person I love.

The Shadowy Industry Dedicated to Squeezing Every Last Penny Out of People in Prison

When it comes to the technological advances that have graced our ever-expanding, ever-crowded, ever-exploitative prisons, observers rightly tend to point out the insidious panopticon they’ve enabled: sophisticated surveillance and security networks that ensnare the lives of nearly 2 million people locked up throughout the United States. But the technology that prisoners themselves use and depend on is frequently overlooked. Those very tools, proffered as a lifeline, often become another means of punishing both incarcerated people and their communities, largely because the profiteers from this multibillion-dollar sector prefer to keep it that way.

The Complex Bargaining Process of Googling From Prison

I already knew my father was dead. For the past three days I had spoken with family members about cremation, grave plots, funeral songs, and the fact I wanted him to wear a green shirt. But I was still hoping it was a bad dream. Sitting in an Ohio prison far away from my loved ones, it was easy to be in denial. To believe he was really gone, I needed proof. I needed someone to Google it. My best chance was with the prison chaplain.

What Happened When “Streaming” Came to My Prison

In 2021, while watching a Super Bowl commercial on a TV bolted to the wall of a cell block, I saw something I had never seen before. A checkered black-and-white square appeared at the center of the screen. The weird little square—which I now understand was a QR code—made no sense to me or my incarcerated peers, and no one from the commercial was explaining it. I vaguely recalled seeing similar symbols in magazines and on some products from the prison canteen, but not what they were for.

For Years, Prison Life Was Isolated From Tech. Now Tech Is Beginning to Define It.

One evening in July 2020, I paced around the house, on the phone with my grandmother. The coronavirus pandemic had suspended visitation at the jail where my uncle was incarcerated, but they had just introduced video calling, and she was trying to figure out how to schedule and pay for a call. We didn’t know it at the time, but my grandmother had only a few months left with my uncle. Those video calls—however imperfect, expensive, and clunky they may have been—facilitated some of the last moments they spent together.