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In prison, a phone was my lifeline. Until I got caught with it. | Opinion

Congress should overturn the Cell Phone Contraband Act to give incarcerated a a lifeline to the outside world.

An incarcerated person makes a phone call from San Quentin State Prison in California in 2015.
An incarcerated person makes a phone call from San Quentin State Prison in California in 2015.Read moreMark Boster / MCT

Since 2010, when I was incarcerated, I have been at the mercy of the prison phone service industry. I have paid 15 cents to $1 per minute for monitored 15-minute phone calls to hear my mother’s prayers, my spouse’s love, and my children’s laughter. Companies like PayTel and Securis compete for contracts to siphon off money sent from family to people like me.

High prices, monitoring, and restrictions fuel the demand for illegal smartphones. Most incarcerated people don’t use smartphones to sell drugs or order violent attacks. Instead, they connect with loved ones. A more humane justice system would take this into account by providing tablets to inmates or allowing for video visits.

Unfortunately, because of how diffuse our national system of corrections is, this is an issue we’ll have to tackle at the county and state levels. While access to smartphones is still forbidden in jails and prisons across the country, many jurisdictions recognize the value of keeping families connected. New York City and San Francisco no longer require incarcerated people to pay a fee for making phone calls from jail, and other cities and states are considering following suit. Texas has expanded tablet access for sending emails, and the Federal Bureau of Prisons allowed for free calls during the pandemic when visitations were banned.

In prison, a phone is a lifeline, a thin thread holding together fragile family bonds. When I was transferred to a federal minimum-security prison in Virginia, located in the heart of the Appalachian Mountains, I thought I would be able to resist the lifeline thrown to me. But after six months of being restricted to the prison phone, I smuggled an illegal smartphone into prison. I knew that if I got caught, I would be placed in solitary confinement, transferred, have more time added to my sentence, or, even worse, be indicted for possessing contraband.

But to me, the risk was worth it. In that phone I saw a chance to live.

In 2018, with the cheapest Samsung Galaxy, I was able to reconnect with my children. My 9-year-old son Jeremiah, who had seen me only once in eight years, got to see me laugh, and see where he got his funny-shaped head. I witnessed my 11-year-old daughter, Jasiah, throwing out softball runners for the first time. I saw her make silly faces and laugh at mine.

Helping my 17-year-old, Jaidan, with geometry, history, and boyfriend lessons was priceless. To see answers dawn on her beautiful face was incomparable to any memory made on a prison phone call — in a phone booth with no doors, no privacy, lines of people waiting, and a 15-minute limit.

The smartphone ushered me into my mother’s living room, where I once enjoyed sweet potato pie and deviled eggs. Finally, I could be a son again, and she could be a mother. She looked me in my eyes, wagged her finger, and reminded me of how much my children need their father.

Our country’s prison system exists to punish people by separating them from their communities. In 2010, Congress passed the Cell Phone Contraband Act, making it a federal crime to possess phones in prison. But the prison system should encourage family connections. They should want us to make amends. Lawmakers should recognize that with a phone, we can begin to bridge family gaps.

On March 4, 2019, while sitting on my bunk after midnight headcount, I was sending birthday songs to a childhood friend when a night officer made an irregular post-count round. I was caught with my phone, handcuffed behind my back, escorted out of the camp, and driven 200 yards to its companion prison. The fortresslike, walled-in maximum-security United States Penitentiary in Lee County, Va., is devoid of any sense of freedom or humanity.

“The prison system should encourage family connections. They should want us to make amends.”

Aaron M. Kinzer

The smartphone was classified as a dangerous device and sent to the FBI. I was sent to the Secured Housing Unit, the prison within the prison, where I would spend the next six weeks. The Justice Department added 41 days to my sentence. I then was shipped to Allenwood Federal Prison in Pennsylvania, where I was fenced off from my family, friends, freedom, and the lifeline of a phone.

But while I was in that 6-by-10-foot concrete box — alone and away from all human contact, being fed like an animal through a slot in the steel door — I paced the floor, exercised obsessively, read voraciously, and wrote more than 50 poems with a three-inch pencil. I asked myself some tough questions: Was what I gained with my phone worth what I lost? Did eight months of conversations make a dent in eight years of distance?

» READ MORE: Five days without a shower, not enough toilet paper, medical emergencies: What I experienced in a Philly jail | Opinion

The answer was always yes.

The phone was a crack that allowed the glory of God to shine a light on my soul, the shovel that exhumed me from the grave, if only for a short time. That Samsung Galaxy was a hand reaching from the heavens to provide me with a much-needed lifeline.

A more humane and just legal system would uphold its commitment to rehabilitation by recognizing the humanity of the people we lock away. People who are incarcerated should be allowed to maintain strong bonds with the family and friends they left behind. Allowing free access to smartphones in prison will foster an environment where men and women could be deterred from committing more crime.

Lawmakers in Congress should overturn or amend the Cell Phone Contraband Act. And as the Biden administration weighs its next federal Bureau of Prisons director, I ask that person to prioritize making it easier for people to communicate with loved ones while in federal prison.

That would require no new law — just a bit of empathy.

Aaron M. Kinzer is the proud father of four children. He is a writer and poet and is serving a 15-year sentence at Allenwood federal prison in central Pennsylvania, due to be released in 2025. Kinzer is part of a community of justice-impacted citizens who lead Dream Corps JUSTICE’s annual Day of Empathy.