MIAMI — When Melvin Garcia was sent to prison almost a decade ago for racketeering, he had never used a computer. Now he sends 50 e-mails a month from a federal prison in West Virginia, punctuating notes with emoticons.
Garcia, 38, is among thousands of prisoners at more than 20 federal facilities where inmates now have in-boxes. By the spring of 2011, all 114 U.S. prisons are expected to have e-mail available for inmates.
The program, started several years ago, has reduced the amount of old-fashioned paper mail that can sometimes hide drugs and other contraband. Just as important, officials say, e-mail helps prisoners connect regularly with their families and build skills they can use when they return to the community.
For Garcia, that means learning to use a computer.
"LET'S JUST SAY THAT MY PREVIOUS EMPLOYMENT DIDN'T REQUIRE IT :o)," he joked in a recent e-mail.
The system inmates use isn't like programs used in most offices and homes. Inmates aren't given Internet access, and all messages are sent in plain text, with no attachments allowed. Potential contacts get an e-mail saying a federal prisoner wants to add them to their contact list and must click a link to receive e-mail, similar to accepting a collect call from a lockup.
Once approved, prisoners can send messages to only those contacts. And contacts can change their mind at any time and take their name off the prisoner's list.
Scott Middlebrooks, the warden at Coleman federal prison northwest of Orlando, said his inmates sent more than 3,200 messages and received some 2,800 a day last month.
The Federal Bureau of Prisons says the system pays for itself with some of the proceeds from prison commissaries. Inmates also pay 5 cents per minute while composing or reading e-mails.
Messages can be screened for keywords that suggest an inmate may be involved in a crime, or read by a corrections officer, just like paper letters. That can create some lag time between when messages are sent and received.
Without analyzing the program specifically, it would be impossible to tell whether inmates could abuse their e-mail privileges, said Bruce Schneier of the security firm BT Counterpane. Coded messages could be sent over e-mail, but that could happen just as easily over the phone, he said.
Despite possible delays for security screens, prisoners and their families say e-mail is still far faster than paper mail. In the past it sometimes took Garcia two days to get urgent news from his fiancee, Rita Torres. Her express mail letters letting him know that a friend had been in a car accident and that a relative had had a miscarriage were delayed.
Now, she said, she e-mails him three times a day and gets about as many e-mails back, making it feel as though they are "living in the same house" even though she is five hours away in New Jersey.
The e-mails don't replace phone calls, but those are limited to five hours a month. And Torres still sends letters, some sprayed with perfume.
What e-mail does, however, is provide another link to the outside.
"Receiving an e-mail is like receiving a letter," William Nerlich, a federal prisoner in Georgia who has another six years to serve on a weapons charge, wrote in an e-mail to the Associated Press. "It makes you happy to be thought of."