Before coming to prison I had never used a typewriter. I had seen them in movies, on TV, even my Dad’s office had one for filling out forms, but I had never used one. This is because I’m 26 years old and for the past 15 to 20 years word processors have ruled the data processing field.
Sadly, this is not the case in America’s prisons. Here at FCI Petersburg, a medium security federal prison in Petersburg, Virginia which has an inmate population of 1,835 inmates, there are a total of 9 typewriters, 3 of which are significantly in need of repair or replacement. In order to operate any of the 6 fully-operable typewriters, an inmate must purchase required supplies. This amounts to around $35 in initial supplies, plus an additional $7.75 per week in ribbon costs, too, for those who type as much as I do.
Outside of prison, $7.75 or even $35 is not a huge deal. But when the inmate only makes $5.25 per month, it is a huge obstacle. In fact, it can be cost prohibitive. Thus enters the question of word processors for inmates.
The other day while reading a Writer’s Digest magazine, I came across an advertisement for a device called a Neo. This is a handheld word processor which operates for a significant number of hours on just a few AAA batteries. It is comprised of a keyboard and a few lines worth of textual display on the screen. This is a true word processor and at $199 it is a steal for those who have to spend around $30 a month to purchase ribbons alone. (Full Disclosure: Most inmates receive additional funds from family and friends. This is in addition to traditional institutional pay, which starts out at $5.25 per month for federal inmates and averages in the $10-$15 range per month.)
The question presents itself, why aren’t federal prisoners allowed to purchase such inexpensive word processors? Why must they make the trek up to the library to fight over who gets to use the less-broken typewriters? Why must 1,825 prisoners compete for 9 typewriters when those interested could simply purchase these Neo devices and save everyone the trouble and continued costs of operation? While these concerns have been presented to the FCI Petersburg Education Department administration, answers have not been forthcoming. In fact, the same answer is presented as when asked why they will not replace the broken typewriters: “We’ll look into this.” Considering that several of the broken typewriters have remained this way for well over a year now, we have our answer.
I understand that institutional safety concerns mute much innovation. I even agree with a number of the safety protocols. But this? Especially when federal inmates are now allowed to use a monitored email service (TRULINCS/Corrlinks.com) and can own MP3 players! It makes no sense at all. It makes no sense to keep prisoners in the stone-age when almost any job they might have upon release will require a working knowledge of a word processor.
It also makes no sense to put an economic burden on an institution’s Education Department when there are inmates willing to purchase their own word processors. This would reduce wear on existing hardware, alleviate some of the overcrowding in the Education Department, calm the nerves of those who must fight over typewriters, and reduce costs associated with repair and replacement. All bias aside, I see a lot of good and very little bad with allowing inmates to purchase word processors such as the Neo.
I implore all who read this, especially those who are in management positions in prisons to consider the idea of allowing inmates to utilize word processors such as the Neo. Determine if this is an option or if it could become one. There is a lot to gain by allowing such purchases and little to lose by doing so.