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Troubling Changes in Personal Mail to Prisons

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Troubling Changes in Personal Mail to Prisons

The following is taken from an August 2021 report in SLATE by Mia Armstrong.

Prisons are increasingly banning physical mail to the incarcerated, leaving adults behind bars with little more than a photocopy of the communication from their loved ones.

Studies and testimonials, such as the letters the Prison Library Project receives with book requests, will testify that regular correspondence with the outside world is crucial to the mental health of a person serving a sentence. It also may affect the successful reintegration upon his or her release.

Restricting traditional physical mail in favor of scanning and printing or electronically delivering letters can be alarming. The Florida Dept. of Corrections, for example, is considering a policy that would digitize mail forcing inmates to pay for printouts or to view their mail on a tablet or “kiosk” operated by a private company.

Under this new program, loved ones send mail to a facility in Florida, operated by the private company Smart Communications, which then scans and sends correspondence to facilities around the country. The Smart Communications’ MailGuard program launched in Pennsylvania prisons in 2018 now operates in more than 110 facilities in 25 states.

One justification for restricting physical mail is echoed across agencies that have implemented similar policies. Corrections officials report cases where paper has been allegedly sprayed with or soaked in drugs – synthetic drugs, opioids, cannabinoid – and led to staff illnesses. The Bureau of Prisons believes that scanning mail is successful in “reducing introduction of synthetic drugs via mail” and has reduced “opioid-associated inmate health problems and related assaultive behavior”.

Of course, stemming the flow of drugs and other contraband into prisons is crucial for everyone’s safety, but SLATE reports there are questions surrounding the evidence officials use to justify these blanket restrictions.

The challenges remain – there are two major problems within the American prison system, reliance on private contractors that exploit and price gouge prisoners and their families, and our prison system works hard to isolate incarcerated people from the outside world then acts surprised when those people have a hard time reintegrating after release. The cause is often associated with the losing battle incarcerated individuals fight against systemic forces of dehumanization.

Physical correspondence has become more urgent for incarcerated people and their families during the COVID pandemic, as many facilities have suspended or restricted visitations.