Minnesota has joined a growing number of states allowing prison inmates to receive email.
It's a subtle but key shift in the way people in prisons keep in contact with the outside world.
Like most 21-year-olds, Matthew Duffy was used to emailing a lot.
The Belle Plaine resident is serving 36 months for second-degree assault in the Minnesota Correctional Facility — Faribault. When Duffy went into prison, he knew he would be cut off from the world, but it didn't occur to him that would include email.
"I didn't know. When I came in I didn't know what to expect, so, no," Duffy said. "No, there ain't no computers, no nothing in here."
This week Minnesota began allowing all inmates in state facilities to receive printed emails. The email system is run by Advanced Technologies Group, based in West Des Moines, Iowa. The company sends messages to computers in prison mailrooms, where they are printed out by staff and distributed to inmates along with regular mail.
Staff at Fairbault prison delivered Duffy's first email Wednesday. It was from his sister. The second email came from a friend, and Duffy says that was a big deal for him.
"It's a lot different, you know. Family, you know, I'm used to talking to them every day," Duffy said. "Someone else outside my family, that's pretty nice."
For now, Duffy can't respond by email. He can return contact by phone, but that's expensive for inmates. So he sends them mail the regular way.
"It's better than nothin', I'd say that," he said.
The CEO of Advanced Technologies Group, Atul Gupta, says the Federal Bureau of Prisons agreed to use his system in 2004. Since then, about six states have allowed inmates email, he said. Gupta said he's often asked why offenders deserve it.
"People think that you're doing these things for inmates who really shouldn't be getting anything. You're giving them email. It's not really email. It's a communications system," Gupta said.
"Ultimately, it truly comes down to is it's supposed to be a bad place and why are we coddling them and why are we spending money on them."
The service costs taxpayers nothing. The people who send the messages pay for the service. Gupta says states determine how much.
"Most states, what they will do is they will look at it in terms of saying, 'hey, can we generate some revenue? Let's do that,'" Gupta said.
Gupta's company holds most of the U.S. contracts for this service, but he says he has one competitor. Advanced Technologies processes emails for more than 250,000 inmates nationwide. Those inmates receive half-a-million messages every day. The company's technology sifts through the words to detect and alert corrections officials to security threats.
Minnesota piloted the program for six-months before signing a contract with Advanced Technologies with an option to renew for up to five years. Minnesota officials seemed more interested in keeping inmates in touch with society, so they'd be able to re-adjust easily after their release, Gupta said
"We're getting them ready for society. Otherwise they're going to come right back, and that's not what we want," he said.
This week, during the first three days Minnesota implemented the system, more than 250 emails were delivered to offenders. People sending to Minnesota inmates pay 30 cents; 10 cents goes to the company and 20 cents to the state.
The money covers the state's cost to operate the system, Minnesota Department of Corrections Deputy Commissioner Terry Carlson said.
"We're going to be evaluating it to find out if we should expand to allow offenders to send email messages back to their family and friends," Carlson said. "The system is set up so that it's secure. The inmates won't have access to the Internet."
But she said if the state takes that step, it will be well in the future.