Skip to content Skip to footer

My Mother’s Letters Should Belong to Me — Not a Company That Works With Prisons

My mom has written me thousands of letters. As an incarcerated person, I don’t own any of them.

JPay, the messaging system for incarcerated people, knows more details about my life than some of my closest friends. Most of my 3,966 emails are from my mother: encouraging me in my faith, and in others, chastising my perceived “sly” comments. As her adult child, it’s hard to maintain a line of independence, especially because I’m so dependent on her for support.

Our correspondence over the past 22 years (the last four via JPay) “have been as much, or more, for my own sanity, as I hope it has been for yours,” she often says.

Despite any of the low points — because there have been some over the last couple of years — there’s an intimate record between my mother and I, captured and stored on JPay. Our love for one another; our calm, fiery, respectful disagreements; and our family’s struggles.

Since JPay’s tablet program rolled out in New York in 2019, the landscape of prison has changed forever. It allows email service on weekends, and in many instances, it is faster than snail mail. But when I go home after serving my full sentence of 25 years to life, will I be able to take with me my emails and digital pictures, which are my most prized possessions?

Sure, for anyone in society, they have instant access to their emails, photos, music, and so forth. Not so much for those who are incarcerated and using JPay, whose slogan is “stay connected.” JPay’s “Terms of Service and Warranty Policy” is both straightforward and contradictory. On the one hand it reads: “If you are released or transferred to a correctional facility that does not have loaner Tablets (sic), JPay will provide you with a USB drive containing your music.” However, “Any secure messaging and their attachments [pictures and e-cards], as well as VideoGrams, will not be made available to you on the USB drive.”

On the other hand, the policy acknowledges that music, as well as games, news, text and pictures are all content “purchased from JPay.” So it doesn’t appear to be a burdensome request, especially given that the content has already been paid for by the incarcerated person or their loved ones and thereby should be the property of those who are leaving prison, just like JPay makes available their music to be uploaded onto a USB drive.

In my inbox, there are a few email exchanges with my mother that I go back to and read every so often — to draw strength from, but also to find reasons to carry on.

When my mother lost her home in her divorce after being married for 17 years, she went from living a solidly middle- to upper-middle-class life, being a founder and director of a women’s shelter and having stability, to being homeless, sleeping in her van at campgrounds or Walmart parking lots.

Before JPay, we had perfected our 10-minute call, which was the allotted phone time. When JPay rolled out, it gave us the needed time to continue any thread of a conversation we had left untied over the phone. We encouraged each other over email, and when she found out I’d be graduating in June 2022, my mom wrote:

May 22, 2022

“Wow. … I’m going to get busy because I got to make your graduation. I’ve never struggled so hard financially–you know that, but it’s going to come to an end soon.”

I could not “do” anything to help my mom, but I could give her the news that I would be graduating. So I did. My telling her felt like a promise of something better on the horizon.

The van that she would drive from Texas to New York was essentially her home. I worried about her making it, because the van wasn’t in the best of shape. I worried that if she broke down, literally all she owned would be sitting on the side of some road.

But, I would not tell her not to come. Everything had changed in her world; I wanted to keep some regularity in our relationship. This meant allowing her to maintain a mothering role, even when, at times, the relationship felt strained. I recall one such email.

May 19, 2022

“It won’t be as long as it has been son, all I can say is Wow!

I’m telling you all of this is wearing me out mentally, physically, financially…”

I read this email inside of my cell, while sitting cross-legged on the floor. I felt the walls had closed in a little.

When being reminded of the toll prison takes on her, often, I do my best not to personalize it.

I am grateful, but I can’t be made to feel like I’m a burden or indebted. I know I can do right by my mom out of my love and gratefulness for her sacrifices over the years. But that’s rooted in who I am — not what I feel like I owe her.

My mom finally got into her apartment. It is in Maryland, and she lives in a building where the average rent is $3,000 a month.

I asked her how she was able to manage that. She replied, “God made a way.” I do believe that is true, and this time He had delivered the blessing through a government Section 8 voucher. I felt freer, just knowing she’d be able to get into a safer, healthier and stabler living situation. My mom writes on:

March 22, 2023

“Well son, good news. I get to meet with the voucher people for my housing on 29th of this month, so I was approved and I’ll let you know what happens with this. How about that!?

LOL. LOL (hearts)”

I read the email quickly, before going to my macroeconomics class. It was all I could think about. I felt like something good was happening. Out of all of the 22 years I’ve been incarcerated, 2019 through 2023 were some of the toughest years.

My mother and I are both in a new space in our lives. She is learning what life is on her own, and in her own space; and for me myself, I’m learning how to set healthy boundaries in my life, so that when I’m released, I can have healthy relationships.

However people feel about prisoners, most of us in here love our mothers. Sometimes these relationships are strained, and to some might appear dysfunctional. Good, bad, or otherwise, history shared through JPay belongs to the makers of those memories, not JPay — as if our memories were a digital scrapbook for them to own well beyond the life of my mother and me.

We have 4 days to raise $37,000 — we’re counting on your support!

For those who care about justice, liberation and even the very survival of our species, we must remember our power to take action.

We won’t pretend it’s the only thing you can or should do, but one small step is to pitch in to support Truthout — as one of the last remaining truly independent, nonprofit, reader-funded news platforms, your gift will help keep the facts flowing freely.