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 inboxes. 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 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 how 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 only send messages to those contacts -- they can't just type in any address and hit send. 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 through the system, which is called TRULINCS and run by Iowa-based Advanced Technologies Group Inc.
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.
Security, of course, is a concern. That's why the 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.
What e-mail does, however, is provide another link to the outside for in inmates.
"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. "It makes you happy to be thought of."