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Prison visitation room with chairs, booths and windows
Photo on iStock

Family and friends are a lifeline to people behind bars, but staying connected can be challenging due to a number of rules and processes. 

Below is a detailed account of communication options inside Arizona state prisons and how they are accessed by incarcerated people and their loved ones on the outside.

Physical mail

Snail mail remains a common method of correspondence for people held in correctional facilities.

Physical mail, such as letters and postcards, are a tangible acknowledgment from loved ones. In Arizona state prisons there is no limit on the number of letters an incarcerated person can receive or send per week — other than what one can afford in stamps.

Stamps, envelopes and pre-stamped envelopes can be purchased weekly from the commissary, a bodega-like store within each correctional facility. Individuals can purchase up to 20 stamps, envelopes and pre-stamped envelopes at a time. Pre-stamped envelopes cost 74 cents each, one Global Forever stamp costs $1.55 and non-stamped envelopes cost 4 cents each.

If someone does not have funds on their “books,” there is a process by which one can establish their indigent status and have their mail paid for by the facility. In this case, stamps are not provided directly to the inmates.

To be considered indigent, they must have less than $12 in their inmate account for 30 continuous days. An inmate can check their balance on the phone system, which will indicate if they have any money on their “books” or in their inmate trust account.

To have their mail sent at no cost, indigent inmates must submit a form called an “Inmate Request for Withdrawal - Internal” to the mail and property officer, along with their outgoing mail.

This form is available from the officer assigned to handle special inmate requests; the applicant must list “indigent” in the “reason” field. Up to five letters can be sent every 30 days. Additionally, once approved, a person may order certain indigent items from the commissary at no cost.

For mail from outside to be successfully delivered to an incarcerated person, the envelope must be correctly addressed with the following information: assigned prison complex and unit, full legal name and ADC number.

Electronic Messaging

Securus Technologies is the provider of electronic prison communications for state correctional facilities in Arizona.

To send and receive electronic messages, loved ones must go to the Securus website or download the app and create an account.

Once enrolled, family and friends can purchase e-stamps, which vary in price based on state and facility. In Arizona, stamps cost 25 cents each. Family and friends can purchase various e-stamp packages that range from $5 for 20 stamps to $20 for 90 stamps. Each message requires a stamp.

Incarcerated people get e-stamps from the commissary by purchasing what’s called “media time.” In my experience, it can take up to 10 days for media time to be reflected on an account — a frustrating experience for those of us who already have few opportunities to communicate with our families.

E-stamps purchased by loved ones are transferred to an incarcerated person’s account at no additional cost. However, the purchase is subject to Arizona’s sales tax.

Earlier this year, Securus began offering incarcerated people in Arizona 10 free e-stamps per month. The e-stamps are received whether or not there are prepaid ones left in an account. But prepaid stamps must be used before free ones. Leftover stamps do not roll over.

Text messages

Another Securus feature offered in Arizona facilities via personal tablet is the Text Connect app. It allows incarcerated people to send instant text messages to family and friends.

Like email contacts, text message contacts must be approved. But unlike the email system, users do not have to wait an extended time for messages to appear. Message rates vary depending on the facility where the inmate resides.

Only family and friends on the outside may purchase message packages through Securus. Package options range from 100 messages for $10, 250 messages for $25 or 300 messages for $30. Incoming and outgoing messages have a 160-character limit (spaces count as a character).

When someone from the outside has purchased a Securus Text Connect package and writes a message, it appears in the inmate's inbox, and they can respond.

You can send texts as long as a prepaid balance exists on the user's account. Once the balance reaches zero, the contact will be blocked from sending or receiving messages until they have purchased another package.

Phone calls

In my prison, phone calls are the primary form of communication between incarcerated people and their loved ones.

In Arizona,an adult requesting contact with an inmate, including phone calls and visitation, must complete an online visitation application and a background check. The fee for the criminal history check is $25 and must be processed online through one of three vendors: Keefe, GTL or JPay. According to the department’s visitation FAQ, the criminal history check is conducted annually but the fee is only charged once.

In my prison yard, phone calls start as early as 5 a.m. and last until 10 p.m. Phones are located just about everywhere: in the “run,” or living area for prisoners; the shared dayroom; and throughout the recreation field. Calls are limited to 15 minutes. Up to three calls can be placed per day depending on an inmate's phase in a three-phase system of graduated incentives, sanctions and privilege levels.

The cost of phone calls in Arizona state facilities has decreased to 7 cents per minute since the end of the pandemic. Phone time can be purchased by inmates through commissary. Friends and family can call ICSolutions at 888-506-8407 or visit its website at www.icsolutions.com. Phone time is also subject to tax, based on where in the country a loved one is calling from. You can search rates and calculate tax here.

Visitation

Arizona Department of Corrections policy requires anyone requesting contact with an incarcerated individual to complete an application and a background check. If you are an approved phone contact, you do not need to apply or submit another fee for a visit. Approved visitors are able to schedule in-person and video visits through the facility’s website or by calling the facility.

According to my state handbook, inmates can visit with up to six people at a time. To visit with more than six persons at a time, you must complete and submit a special visit request form at least 30 days before the visit.

During in-person visits, we are required to be in full compliance with the dress code. This means state-issued or store-bought pants, T-shirts, pullovers or sweatshirts, undergarments, socks and shoes. No open-toed shoes or sandals, ripped or altered clothing, thermals, hats or beanies.

Family and friends also must abide by a dress code, which forbids “sexually explicit attire or clothing that could pose a potential security risk to inmates or staff.” Visitors also are not permitted to wear spandex-like material, medical scrubs, or see-through or opennetted clothing. According to the handbook, clothing must be “clean, in good repair and in the bounds of common decency.” Orange clothing, camouflage clothing, or clothing that resembles corrections staff uniforms are also prohibited.

Clothing rules can be complicated and subjective. Visitors can be turned away even if they follow rules to the best of their ability and still be turned away. For that reason, it is a good idea for visitors to keep a backup set of clothing in the car in case you are turned away by prison staff.

Visits take place in four-hour blocks, which can be stacked or extended depending on the incarcerated person’s phase level. Other restrictions may apply without notice based on unforeseen prison security measures, so it’s best to be ready for just about anything.

Video visitation

Since the COVID-19 pandemic, rules for in-person visitation have changed significantly. Video visits — available through Securus — make it easier to see and speak with loved ones without traveling long distances or contending with extensive prison protocol.

In my experience, video visits take place in the same visitation hall as regular visits. This hall is roughly the size of a high school gymnasium. In county jails, there are usually smaller rooms that ensure privacy and quiet.

There are no policy limits on how many video visits can be scheduled per week or month, but availability may limit scheduling opportunities. Also, all visits can be revoked at any time if the incarcerated person is placed on disciplinary status with loss of privileges.

Video visits last 30 minutes. Be sure to schedule visits in advance. Time slots for all visits fill up fast.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Global Forum Online has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Chastyn “Nova” Hicks is a writer and artist incarcerated in Arizona.