A fight against floppy discs evolves into a prison rights crusade

Incarcerated man asks court to compel prisons to dump ‘Stone Age’ technology

By: - April 5, 2023 7:05 am

A man incarcerated at the New Jersey State Prison in Trenton has asked the courts to intervene in his bid to overturn the state Department of Corrections' ban on flash drives and higher-tech alternatives to word processors and typewriters in prison. (Dana DiFilippo | New Jersey Monitor)

As a paralegal, LaShawn Fitch has learned some weighty stuff, everything from the difference between de facto, de jure, and de novo to the proper way to file things in criminal, civil, administrative, and federal courts.

But one of the biggest challenges he’s faced has been how to find an affordable, long-lasting word processor and keep floppy discs from corrupting and wiping out all his work.

Fitch has been incarcerated since 2014 at the New Jersey State Prison in Trenton, where laptops, flash drives, and other modern digital conveniences are banned as security risks.

Now, he’s on a crusade to get the state Department of Corrections to lift that ban. He filed a grievance with the system last fall seeking broader technology access for imprisoned people. After several terse responses from corrections officials saying they were researching the issue and a notice that those responses were final, Fitch escalated his case in December to state Superior Court, where he hopes a judge will intervene.

“I’m only 32, so I didn’t know what a word processor was till I got here,” Fitch told the New Jersey Monitor. “They’re obsolete. It’s time to change.”

Such a fight might seem surprising, considering how tightly access to digital tools is restricted behind bars. Even today, many people in prisons rely on pen and paper to fight their cases and to communicate with the outside, with their only technological access an occasional turn on the few internet-free computers in prison libraries.

But as technology has evolved, so has access to it behind bars.

In 2015, New Jersey prison officials made tablet computers available for incarcerated people to send email and videograms, download digital books, games, and music, and transfer money through a system called JPay. These concessions have recognized that incarceration’s digital divide leaves many people who leave prison struggling to reintegrate and that digital literacy can reduce recidivism.

Battles like Fitch’s have helped remove barriers to other modern mundanities, like cell phone calls. Incarcerated people in New Jersey had long been barred from calling cell phone numbers — similarly, because of “security concerns” — until Edward Grimes, who was incarcerated at the Trenton state prison, took the Department of Corrections to court and won that right in 2017.

Still, the digital tools available to people serving time are in short supply and in huge demand. The state prison in Trenton has 49 JPay kiosks for the 1,300 people incarcerated there.

Antiquated and expensive

Technology in prison also can lag decades behind that on the outside.

“The courts went through a technological revolution, with e-filing and all these new things that they got out there, and we’re still stuck in the Stone Age,” Fitch said.

Fitch uses floppy discs and a word processor to store legal research and draft filings for himself and others at his prison.

But floppy discs are easily corruptible, so one pass through a metal detector can wipe out weeks of work, he said. And word processors have become so antiquated that they don’t last long and cost a lot, Fitch said. He said he paid $600 for his.

“Outside sources know that people in prison use them, so they end up price gouging you,” he said. “They only have a shelf life of six months. I can’t turn my word processor on if it’s too hot in my cell because it’ll turn all your words into gibberish. The first thing that goes is the keypads. So you got to order the keypad — but the thing is, they won’t let you order the stuff that you need to fix it. It makes absolutely no sense. So it’s like you have to roll the dice. I’ve seen guys buy word processors for $500, and it conked out on them in a week.”

He added: “People that serve this much time don’t have money like that. Stamps went up, certified mail went up, the commissary went up, everything went up, but the only thing that didn’t go up is the wages we make. It’s terrible, and the only thing that we can do right now is fight.”

Attorneys also increasingly provide discovery materials and other court-related information on flash drives instead of paper copies, but prison workers confiscate them, he said.

Wanda Bertram of the Prison Policy Initiative said making any sought-after service available inside prisons positively affects safety because it reduces the incentive for black markets to develop.

Like New Jersey, many states have partnered with telecom companies to bring tablet computers into prisons, but many offer sparse educational content and charge exorbitant prices for services like email that are free outside prisons, she added.

“If computers in prisons are ever going to serve the needs of people there, we need more prisoners — rather than private companies — working on efforts to get computers inside,” Bertram said.

Department of Corrections spokeswoman Amy Z. Quinn declined to comment on Fitch’s complaint.

“The New Jersey Department of Corrections supports incarcerated persons’ rights to communicate with family and friends and the use of technology to support education and rehabilitative programs in ways that enhance the safe and orderly operation of facilities,” Quinn said. “Laptops, USB storage devices, and cell phones are not authorized for use by incarcerated persons due to safety and security shortcomings inherent in the technology used.”

The courts went through a technological revolution, with e-filing and all these new things that they got out there, and we're still stuck in the Stone Age.

– LaShawn Fitch

Security concerns

Bill Sullivan heads the New Jersey Policemen’s Benevolent Association Local #105, a union that represents more than 5,000 state correctional officers.

Sullivan said there are legitimate security concerns about both flash drives and anything more sophisticated than word processors and typewriters.

Flash drives can be used for other reasons besides legal research and preparation and are so small that they can be smuggled in and out of prison and between incarcerated people, Sullivan said.

As a correctional officer, he added, “how am I going to look at them? I’ll plug it in and it’s going to be password-protected, so I can’t see if they have escape plans or child pornography or gambling or whatever on there.”

And while CDs would be a more modern floppy disc alternative, those can be broken into sharp pieces or melted together into makeshift weapons, Sullivan said.

“That’s why they’re limited to those floppies because you can’t really do much damage with them,” he said.

Allowing people to have computers in their cells raises concerns about potential hacking and illicit internet use, Sullivan added.

“There’s too many questions about what you can do with a computer,” he said. “There might be ways to make it Wi-Fi-capable, like you might be able to pick up the Wi-Fi of the hotel across the street and then you start using your laptop for nefarious activities.”

Ron Pierce, a policy analyst with the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, said the system too often denies incarcerated people rights because of security concerns that aren’t rooted in reality.

“That’s the go-to term: ‘It’s a security issue.’ And the courts have really deferred to them on security issues,” Pierce said. “But it’s an issue of civil rights, because a person that’s incarcerated has the right to have access to the courts.”

That’s one argument Fitch made in his appeal to the court.

Last year, state judicial officials changed court rules to require anyone filing briefs, petitions, and motions to use 14-point Times New Roman font.

“It’s going to violate our rights to the court, if y’all don’t comply with getting rid of the word processor because the word processor only has one font and one size,” Fitch said. “It doesn’t come with different sizes and fonts. So if we’re actually printing out briefs that the courts won’t take, then where does that leave us?”

Despite the rule, courts spokeswoman MaryAnn Spoto said the courts wouldn’t reject a filing because of a failure to adhere to the required font size.

Pierce, who served 30 years in prison including in Trenton, pointed to the court’s typical rigidity on rules. The mere existence of the new rule likely already has dissuaded some incarcerated people from filing anything if they can’t comply with the mandated font size, he said.

“They’re so used to the courts being very specific and particular about how they file,” he said. “Why would I put all that work into it, to only get denied because I don’t have a machine that would produce that font?”

That’s why Fitch hopes he’ll prevail — but won’t stop fighting even if he loses.

“When I went to my juvenile waiver hearing, everybody was just talking over my head. I didn’t know what nothing meant. I didn’t know what they was talking about. All I knew was I walked out of there with a million-dollar bail. And I told myself that’d be the last time I ever go into a room and I don’t know what’s going on,” said Fitch.

Fitch became a paralegal behind bars. Now he can even write legislation.

“They should put a drop box at the Statehouse, where you can just propose legislation,” he said. “I would fill it up every week.”

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Dana DiFilippo
Dana DiFilippo

Dana DiFilippo comes to the New Jersey Monitor from WHYY, Philadelphia’s NPR station, and the Philadelphia Daily News, a paper known for exposing corruption and holding public officials accountable. Prior to that, she worked at newspapers in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and suburban Philadelphia and has freelanced for various local and national magazines, newspapers and websites. She lives in Central Jersey with her husband, a photojournalist, and their two children.