Kwaneta Harris raised her kids over the phone. Or at least, she tried to, when prison officials let her make a call. Incarcerated for the past 16 years in state prison in Texas — over seven of them in solitary confinement — Harris has regularly been cut off from her phone privileges.
Harris is just one of more than 22,000 people held in solitary confinement somewhere in the United States’ awful conglomeration of prisons, jails, juvenile detention, and immigration facilities. She is a mother, a former nurse, and a journalist from inside Lane Murray Unit in Gatesville, Texas. Each of these roles have gotten her into trouble with prison authorities.
In April of this year, as reported by Victoria Law in The Nation, Harris was moved to a more isolated cell after she started chatting with curious younger women in neighboring cells through the vents. After overhearing a woefully uninformed conversation about sex, she jumped in to offer some basic facts, including “dispelling myths about abortion,” as The Nation put it. She was soon disciplined by an anti-abortion guard, who also threatened criminal charges for talking about abortion. (There’s no such law, but Harris, without regular news access, couldn’t be sure of that.) Her new location keeps her from communicating with women in the other cells — just as the whims of prison officials have kept her from being in touch with her family.
In the following account, Harris describes how guards would end phone calls if a member of her family asked her if she needed more commissary funds or if she was coming home soon. This is not unusual; incarcerated people are typically at the mercy of capricious and vindictive rules set by prison officials.
In addition to being highly regulated and monitored, phone calls made to or from incarcerated people are exorbitantly expensive. Harris describes spending $160 on phone calls in a week. In 2022, the average price for a 15-minute phone call from jail was about $3. In January 2023, President Joe Biden signed the Martha Wright-Reed Just and Reasonable Communications Act of 2022, which allows the Federal Communications Commission to regulate the phone charges of incarcerated people. Advocates hope it will lead to lower costs for basic communication, but there’s no enforcement mechanism yet.
Despite some positive developments, incarcerated people who use their phone calls to speak against their conditions, or to report on happenings inside, still risk punishment. The Federal Bureau of Prisons explicitly forbids incarcerated people from acting as reporters. This May, the New York Department of Correction and Community Supervision quietly rolled out a policy to heavily restrict what creative works incarcerated writers and artists could publish and banned compensation for such work. Though outrage prompted the agency to roll back the policy, it shows the precariousness of communication from inside prisons and jails.
Phone calls are a lifeline for incarcerated people — they provide connections to their loved ones and aid against the prison system’s abuses. Despite the importance of the phone, there is no legal right to telephone communication to the outside for incarcerated people. As Harris’s account shows, what is legal in our system is cruelty. —Cheryl Rivera
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“No Tears!” the media noted when I received a half-century sentence for killing my abusive partner. They didn’t know that I was trying to be strong for my disabled mother, who would now be coparenting her granddaughters, ages seven and two, and her 13-year-old grandson.
“They’re only a phone call away,” I told myself over and over, like a mantra, the only thing that soothed me. I told myself they would be fine. As long as I could talk to them, I could still guide them.
It was the year America elected Michelle’s husband for president. My Southern grandmother, like an old Black Cassandra, prophesied the white backlash. Over a prison phone, I tried to prepare my teenage know-it-all Black son with daily lectures about “police interactions.” By 2016, he was 23, grappling with the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown, and I was still parroting my routine script over the prison phone. His last words on that call were, “Mama, I’m afraid.”
At 14, my oldest daughter was bullied ruthlessly for having a mother in prison. After a pair of suicide attempts and transferring schools twice, I was desperate. I reached out to peers who all advised me to do what they did: “Tell them kids to stop telling folks you in prison —tell them you deceased!” I was aghast until reminded that the goal is to protect the children from mistreatment and obtain much-needed compassionate emotional support. My daughter reluctantly agreed.
My daughter was a chubby, breastfeeding four-month-old baby when I was arrested. She came to know me as a voice over the phone. She asked, “Mama?” whenever any phone rang. At eight, she started stealing candy from the neighborhood store. Each time, she was marched directly back in to apologize, sweep the floor, and placed on a punishment. The entire family admonished her but nothing worked. My father joked, “I’m taking sticky fingers to the jeweler. Maybe she can lift a Rolex.”
Discovering a candy wrapper was the last straw for her father. Reneging on our corporal punishment ban, he swatted her bottom three times. The candy bandit only stared at him, refused to cry, and gave him the silent treatment. He told me about it in what would be our last discussion. Sobbing, he said, “I told her jail is where thieves go.” She had replied, “I wanna go to jail to be with my mother.”
These were our last conversations; my phone privileges ceased for the next seven years when I was placed in solitary confinement.
During my seven years in solitary confinement — if prison staffing was sufficient and I remained disciplinary-free for 90 days — I became eligible for one five-minute phone call on speaker. This meant one possible call every three to four months. The sergeant frequently allowed our calls only after midnight.
Prior to dialing, he would ramble off the rules: You forfeit your call by swearing or by asking about other inmates or money. If voicemail answers, you lose your chance. Magically, we’re expected to control what our loved ones say. “When will you and daddy be home?” and “do you need money?” were both violations. The sergeant would abruptly end the call.
My mom sounded like an auctioneer as she quickly updated me on the kids’ education, health, deaths, births, and weddings. She’d talk on until the sergeant pressed that button. She wrote snail mail weekly, but kids don’t like to write.
The hardest part of solitary confinement isn’t witnessing the deaths, suicide attempts, self-harm, and physical and sexual abuse. It isn’t the triple-digit temps without air conditioning or freezing temps without heat. Neither is it the hunger pains masquerading as thunder nor being stuck in a steel box for months without a shower or outside sunshine. I would gladly endure all of the above ten times over than be denied the opportunity to console both of my daughters over the phone after their fathers died. It was bad enough that I couldn’t offer them a hug.
The hardest part of solitary confinement is that the state wouldn’t even allow me to offer an ear.
I survived seven years in solitary by replaying those last conversations. I held on to them as my lifeline. I had a yearning so overpowering that I began talking to my family in my imagination. Others may cope with a chemical straitjacket, keeping themselves too high to remember the pain. I became emotionally drained from that torture, and witnessing it being done to others. Slowly, I accepted that my loved ones had become accustomed to living without me. I thought they didn’t need me.
In 2022, the people in solitary confinement were approved to use an email messaging system. In 2023, males in solitary confinement staged a hunger strike protesting inhumane conditions. Although women didn’t participate, our messages and snail mail were withheld as retaliation as well. The day the strike ended, I received a deluge of old email messages and a plastic bag containing my snail mail.
This past March, we were approved for daily tablet phone calls from 2 p.m. to 8 p.m. I called everyone. My mother wasted the first 30-minute call crying uncontrollably. My 30-year-old son canceled a client meeting just to sit and talk with me. My 21-year-old daughter was so overcome with emotions, she pulled over and let her boyfriend drive.
I’m getting to know my 15-year-old baby. She’s been teaching me text lingo and phone etiquette. “Mom, please use your inside voice.” “Mom, you don’t need to ask, ‘Can you speak to someone,’ just assume the person answering is them.” “Mom, it’s not ‘me-me,’ it’s meme.”
The first week of phone calls left me short $160 and wondering, “is this what it feels like to be high?” A euphoric feeling of love and happiness. It wasn’t all unicorns and rainbows to learn of the many disturbances my mom hid from me. Some things can’t be explained in five minutes with a trigger-finger sergeant eavesdropping.
Nobody sounds like I imagined. In my imagination the kids didn’t complain about their siblings. But I’ve never been so happy to be so wrong. Because they do need me. They have always needed me.
I’ve returned to my self-soothing mantra, “They’re only a phone call away.” For now, they are.
Kwaneta Harris is a former nurse, business owner, expat, and currently incarcerated journalist in solitary confinement in Texas focusing on the intersection of race, gender, and place. She focuses on illuminating how different incarceration is for women. She is working on a book about youth transferred to adult solitary confinement. Publication of this story was supported by Empowerment Avenue, an organization that supports incarcerated writers and artists.