Over the decades I’ve been in prison, I’ve seen firsthand how communication with the outside world comes at a price. All too often, prisoners are forced to use their blood as currency just to use the phone.
I learned this lesson early. In 1994, at age 16, I was locked down on Rikers Island in C-74 Adolescent Jail. We were known as “adolescents at war.” With only two phones in each house of 40 or so prisoners, the violence over making calls never ended. Some prisoners got stabbed, lacerated or busted to white meat. Their stitches ranged from 20 to a buck fifty.
As the new guy in 4 Main — a unit nicknamed “House of Pain” — it was much easier to write a letter. But I needed to call home and tell my momma I was OK and the date of my next court appearance. Before I could even touch a phone no one was using, another prisoner stepped to me. “You get six minutes on the jack. Get yours in the morning or you can get this right now,” he threatened in a thick Bushwick, Brooklyn, accent.
My opponent’s words held no value to me. Not even his 10 or so Latin King comrades seemed costly; I had spent dudes like them in minutes. But the broken rug cutter in his right hand did have the power to make a hefty withdrawal of my blood. I looked to the correctional officer in the officer bubble, hoping she would buy me some time. But she raised the newspaper she wasn't supposed to be reading higher, until she completely vanished.
I didn't call home that night. Neither did my opponent. We fought. We hurt each other for the right to use the phone.
In 1998 I found myself in Attica Correctional Facility, where hardened men were like the living dead. We could only make collect calls, and our loved ones paid the cost. And the violence was rampant. To take and maintain total control over the phones, the stronger prisoners buried the weaker ones like hidden treasure. Administrators tried to better regulate phone usage and stop the violence, but the strong owned and meted out the phone time. It was the very definition of a hostile takeover.
I was at Fishkill Correctional Facility last year when COVID-19 flexed on humanity. I was voted chairman of the Inmate Liaison Committee (ILC) and took an oath to represent the population's pain to the administration.
Thankfully, COVID missed me. But it came close enough for the contact tracing system to quarantine me for two weeks. The prison turned Special Housing Unit (SHU) 200 — the box — into a quarantine facility.
I was fine living in the isolation of the SHU; I grew up living in cells. But Fishkill is a medium-security prison with a lot of dorm housing. After the madness of dorm life, I sat back and chilled out. It helped that I had the equivalent of a cell phone.
Every prisoner has access to a free JPay tablet that holds downloaded music, movies, games and fee-based “secure messaging.” But everyone in the SHU got a second tablet with a built-in phone app. Suddenly, everyone had their own phone, regardless of whether they were quarantining or being disciplined.
It dawned on me that we were holding the solution to an age-old prison problem. If we all had the option to use a phone app, the value of violence would plunge. We would no longer have to withdraw each other's blood to make calls.
Armed with this new technology, I decided to bring the issue to the next ILC meeting with prison administrators. On April 30, 2020, I argued that outfitting every tablet with phone capabilities would reduce violence among prisoners. The administration argued against it on grounds that it would require internet capability. The way the buildings are wired, there is no Wi-Fi, they said. Getting it would require approval from the Central Office.
I counter-argued from every angle, so they could see all the scars I had collected over the last 23 years. But they didn't take me seriously. Their posture signaled indifference; some laughed. At that point, my carefully crafted coat began falling apart at the seams. I spoke out in the voice of my 16-year-old self, the one with 3-inch gashes on my left cheek. The administrators would not budge an inch. Our pain was their stock and trade.
Right before the meeting ended, I closed my eyes and listened for my people. I was trying to hear their voices from the depths of countless prisons. Then I recalled something horrible I had actually seen: a four-man fight over using the phone.
The only consolation is that the transcripts of these meetings are government documents reviewed by the Commissioner’s office. It’s one of the few times the system can’t officially suppress the voice of the prison population.
I faced the administration again, in late June, this time as a second-term ILC chairman. I renewed my request to have the phone app placed on all the JPay tablets. The bosses denied me again for the same reasons. They didn't hear me last year, and they didn’t in June. Maybe they never will. But I won't stop advocating until they do.
Corey Devon Arthur was born in Brooklyn in 1977 and has been incarcerated for robbery and murder since 1997. He has earned a legal research certification and studied through Rising Hope and Nyack College. Arthur is currently serving his second term as chairman of the Inmate Liaison Committee at Fishkill Correctional Facility. He's a proud member of Empowerment Avenue, a collective of incarcerated writers. Arthur is also passionate about drawing and is currently working on a trilogy of short stories.
Thomas Mailey, spokesperson for the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, would not comment on Arthur’s recollection of the two scheduled ILC meetings. To confirm the information, The Marshall Project would have to make a formal request under the state's Freedom of Information Law, he wrote in an email.