It'll be a long time before Bretton Link can be with friends and family again. The 47-year-old is locked in the North Dakota State Penitentiary on a 40-year sentence for dealing meth, with an expected release date of 2030. Compared to his previous stints in prison, though, it's easier this time for Link to stay in touch with loved ones.
In his cell, he drafts emails on a specialty tablet, designed for use by inmates, that can also download books and music. In common areas, he connects to one of the kiosks that sends and receives messages.
"I've done time at other facilities and we had nothing like this," Link told The Huffington Post by phone from Bismarck. "It's nice to get an instant response during the week." In the '90s, he added, he would send letters home by regular mail, and it would take "a minimum of two weeks" for a response to come back.
The email access and the tablets are sold by JPay, one of many for-profit companies that offer email, phone and video messaging services to incarcerated people.
JPay's latest innovation is digital greeting cards, which the company unveiled in December. E-cards hit the Internet at least 20 years ago, and their cutesy imagery and saccharine sentiments mean they've long been out of vogue for many people. But for someone in prison -- or someone who loves someone in prison -- e-cards can seem like exactly what's needed. JPay appears to be the first business to make them available to men and women behind bars, where Internet access remains restricted.
"We provide services that help families and inmates communicate better," said JPay CEO Ryan Shapiro. "If [an inmate] didn't have these resources to communicate, he's far less likely to succeed when he's released."
One of the 30 e-cards available to inmates and their families through JPay.
For 35 cents apiece, Link was able to choose from 30 pre-approved e-cards to send his sister and friends during the holidays last month. The selection includes a card showing a wrinkly-faced pug holding a chalkboard that says "I miss you." Another card shows a child's hand coloring hearts next to the words "Happy birthday Daddy."
Before the introduction of e-cards, Link's only option was to request complimentary greeting cards from the prison chaplain.
"They were all religious. I [was] stuck with that," Link said.
Inmates in 10 states can purchase the e-cards, as can their families, and about 32,000 cards were sent on the first day of the service, according to JPay officials. The company hopes to enlarge its selection of cards in time for Valentine's Day and to get approval from regulators to introduce them in other states.
JPay's email kiosks in North Dakota's four adult prisons are extremely popular, according to a deputy warden who told HuffPost that roughly 90 percent of inmates use them. The e-cards' popularity has reduced some of the work for corrections staff tasked with intercepting and rejecting mail that contains contraband or violates other rules.
"Our rejection rates are extremely low on JPay messages compared to what they are for Hallmark greeting cards," said Troy Schulz, deputy warden at the North Dakota State Penitentiary. "It really expedites that process."
Inmates can't modify or personalize the actual images on the e-card, but they can write a message in an email and include the card as an attachment. Prisoners' email communication can be screened, although this is not universally enforced, and some states filter emails for words that suggest criminal activity.
JPay officials argue that the e-cards and email are ingredients in a rehabilitative recipe that keeps inmates connected to their families. They point to research showing that inmates who maintain close contact with their family members tend to perform better upon release, with higher odds of finding stable employment and housing.
But critics take issue with the fact that JPay's services are only available to those who can pay. They also say the company's basic business model is problematic, since it relies on men and women being incarcerated in large numbers.
"JPay and other companies like it have grown up in the shadow of the mass incarceration epidemic," said Carl Takei, a staff attorney for ACLU's National Prison Project. "They depend on and profit from the fact that we incarcerate more people than any country on earth."
Shapiro counters that without JPay's technology, inmates and their families would have to rely on the post office, which is more expensive and time-consuming for everyone involved.
"Every [electronic] communication is less than if you buy an envelope and a stamp," he said.