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The Digitization of Mail in Prisons: Expanding Surveillance and Exploitation

In recent years, American prisons have witnessed a significant shift in their mail systems, with the introduction of digital mail scanning. While touted as a solution to prevent contraband smuggling, the digitization of mail has far-reaching consequences. This blog explores the article "Lost in Transit: Digitization of Mail Expands Surveillance Beyond Prisons" by Phillip Vance Smith II, shedding light on the implications of increased surveillance and exploitation associated with this transition.

The Illusion of Security:

One of the primary reasons behind the adoption of digital mail systems is the perceived need to prevent the smuggling of illicit drugs and banned items into prisons. However, the author argues that these items often enter through means other than postal mail, such as employee involvement. The shift to digital mail scanning merely expands prison surveillance while collecting vast amounts of data on both senders and recipients.

The Toll on Families:

While prisons bear no cost in implementing these services, families of incarcerated individuals shoulder the financial burden. Companies like TextBehind charge fees per message, making it increasingly expensive for families to stay in touch. The article highlights the disproportionate impact on financially struggling families who cannot take advantage of discount deals, resulting in higher fees for single-use messages.

Questionable Effectiveness:

Despite claims by prison officials that mail scanning has reduced disciplinary infractions related to substance abuse, the article questions the true efficacy of these systems. The author points out that decreased substance violations may have alternative explanations, such as reduced testing or changes in drug availability within the prison. The article argues that the surveillance aspect outweighs the alleged security benefits, as drugs and banned items can still find their way into prisons through various means.

The Isolation Dilemma:

The transition to digital mail has unintended consequences for incarcerated individuals and their networks. It increases isolation and prompts self-censorship due to heightened surveillance and uncertainty surrounding these systems. The article highlights how this hinders personal connections, disrupts communication, and leads to the withholding of cherished items like personal photos.

Exploitation and Monopolization:

The author sheds light on the exploitative nature of the prison communication industry, with companies like TextBehind and Smart Communications capitalizing on the desire for enhanced intelligence gathering. By centralizing services and collecting extensive personal data, these companies establish a surveillance system that maps incarcerated individuals' social networks over time. The monopolization of prison communication services places an additional financial burden on families, exacerbating the cycle of exploitation.

Privacy Concerns and Legal Gray Areas: The article raises concerns about the privacy of incarcerated individuals and the potential misuse of collected data. It questions the legality of storing and using this data without proper disclosure or consent. Additionally, limitations on information sent by support organizations and the unpredictability of mail services further hinder incarcerated individuals' access to resources and support.

The digitization of mail in prisons, touted as a security measure, reveals a disconcerting reality of expanded surveillance and exploitation. Families, already facing numerous challenges, bear the financial burden, while incarcerated individuals suffer from increased isolation and limited communication. It is crucial to address the privacy concerns, legal ambiguities, and the overall impact on incarcerated individuals and their networks. As society moves towards digital surveillance methods, we must ensure that the rights and well-being of all individuals, including those in prison, are respected and protected.


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