For the nearly seven million individuals who are incarcerated, on probation or parole in the United States, one of the primary crossroads faced is regaining a feeling that one is in control of one’s own life.

Within the wall of a cell block, everything from bathing to phone calls to receiving mail must be done under the watchful eyes of prison guards or other officials. Upon release, a parole officer closely watches their whereabouts.

Given these circumstances, Marsha Neal, an 11-year veteran of Michigan’s penal system, thought that what the incarcerated needed more than anything else was a greater sense of independence.

“While I worked in corrections, I became acutely aware of the lack of empowerment felt by many inmates,” said Neal, owner and founder of Cell Connection, a fee-based service provided to inmates and their families.

A fee of $19.95, good for a one-year membership and can be paid either by fax or on-line from a friend or relative or by the inmates themselves.

Neal’s company offers such services as preparing resumes for inmates, offering employment development and training, and helping the inmate find work by contacting potential employers.

“While incarcerated, all of their actions are closely monitored and pre-scheduled beforehand. It’s hard for them to really reform when they have no control over their lives in preparation for leaving the prison,” said Neal.

The company opened its Jackson, Mich. office in November 2005. A family member or friend can purchase the service or an inmate through a signed Institutional Disbursement Form, allowing those working while in prison to pay out of their paycheck.

Neal felt that the best way to give inmates more of a since of freedom was to allow them the option to pay for services and job placement resources themselves.

“I have put together a catalogue of goods and services based on what my experience has shown me inmates have the toughest time obtaining and what they are most in need of,” said Neal. “Once they become a member of the program, they will receive a chronicle of every service offered and can make requests for others not listed.”

He then receives the cataloged by mail with instructions on ordering and setting up an online account and password. The inmate places a lump sum amount in the account for the company to access whenever an order is placed. The inmate receives statements after every transaction.

Neal said her service would allow the inmate an easier re-entry into society. But community organizations such as Eyes on Austin and the North Lawndale Employment Network offer similar outreach services to ex-offenders ?” and for free in some instances.

Neal responded: “There is a $19.95 activation fee for the service. It would be paid either by the inmate themselves or the family of the inmate. They will receive a catalogue of all services provided and an account to deposit funds into to pay for services. It really allows them the chance to reacquaint themselves with consumer society, which will aid their re-entrance back into society.”

Some services could include obtaining books for an inmate or having flowers sent to a loved one. But a loved one on the outside could handle such activities just as efficiently and cheaply.

Neal counters by noting that in many cases inmates either don’t have reliable people on the outside or they have such undependable mailing systems that they may not receive their requests for weeks.

She insists Cell Connection will get an inmate’s packages to them quickly and with minimum fuss. Neal added that the service takes the burden off an inmate having to rely on others for their basic needs.

Not everyone, however, is sold on this idea, Neal confessed.

She sent requested information about her program to more than 150 prisons across the country. Among those interested were in such states as Idaho, Florida, Ohio and not surprisingly Michigan, the company’s headquarters. Other states balked at the concept.

“California was the least corporative,” Neal said. “I requested records on the inmates and sent flyers to various locations and not only was my request not granted but all the flyers were sent back.”

According to Neal Illinois was also a challenge. It granted her the records on the inmates but charged her $45 and only accepted a portion of her flyers.

The company, though, has drawn the attention of several publications. She said the company could potentially provide the more than 100,000 incarcerated in Illinois the first step to rebuild their lives.

For more information about Cell Connection, visit