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Communication Crackdown in Federal Prisons Has Been Operating Quietly Until Now

“Double contact bans” disrupt the means by which prisoners may assert their rights and dissent to their treatment.

The Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) has quietly but steadily been implementing a nationwide policy that silences the voices of people incarcerated in federal prisons by preventing them from sharing the same email and phone contacts for people on the outside, also known as a “double contact ban.”

The policy, which gives prison authorities wide leeway to censor communications, appears to have gone through an intensive test run for the past two years at a Minnesota women’s federal prison, FCI Waseca, where roughly 900 incarcerated people received a written warning from the warden on March 13, 2024.

The notice sent to prisoners’ emails could neither be printed nor forwarded. Truthout was able to obtain a copy of the policy, which reads in part:

FCI Waseca Inmate Bulletin

Recently, a review by SIS [the Special Investigative Services] was conducted on inmates’ email and phone accounts at FCI Waseca and it was discovered inmates are actively sharing emails, addresses and phone numbers with other inmates housed at FCI, and within the Bureau of Prisons. With the exception of approved inmate to inmate correspondence, legal correspondence, advocacy groups and educational information, the sharing of email addresses and phone numbers pose a safety and security concern for the Bureau of Prisons and FCI Waseca.

Current and former federal prisoners say that variations of this policy have been implemented in other BOP prisons for a long time, but the phenomenon of national bans on contacting sources from legal services, media and prisoner advocacy groups has rapidly accelerated since February 2024.

Former federal prisoner Chad Marks founded Freedom Fighters, an organization that helps federal prisoners with compassionate release cases, grievances and clemency petitions. Marks confirms that the practice of limiting which email addresses or phone numbers a prisoner can contact has been a long-standing practice throughout the BOP. The policy has remained in what could best be described as “stealth mode” until now. “The other prisons put out memos [about double contact bans], but they do not distribute them to prisoners … if you find out you’ve had someone blocked and go to ask about it, they’ll say, yes, we blocked him, ‘there’s a policy,’” Marks told Truthout.

“Prisoners are afraid to speak out about the double contact ban or all the other horrible things happening here,” explained “Twinn” Wrice, a trans man incarcerated at FCI Waseca, who has been outspoken in his opposition to the policy and what he says is a climate of fear, retaliation and chaos that reigns at FCI Waseca specifically and BOP prisons more broadly. “People want their families and media to know what’s happening.”

Wrice and others incarcerated at FCI Waseca say the problems afflicting the prison are numerous, from a K2 (synthetic cannabinoid) crisis and increasing suicide attempts, to insufficient food portions and indoor temperatures that sometimes reach or surpass 100 degrees Fahrenheit.

“[Since 2022,] I have had attorneys blocked, family and media outlets. We have complained and the family members were reinstated but not my attorney, the local news and newspaper outlets,” added Wrice. “Everyone is worried about retaliation or being thrown in the SHU [security housing unit, a.k.a. solitary confinement].”

This latest move to ban prisoners from contacting prominent legal and advocacy groups locally and nationally raises severe concerns about the First Amendment rights supposedly guaranteed to all Americans.

Jenipher Jones, co-chair of the National Lawyers Guild’s Mass Incarceration Committee and chair of the Mass Defense Committee, said that she is “not necessarily surprised at questionable means used to control prisoners’ communication to and from the outside world.”

“The communication policy is a direct relic of slavery, when enslaved Blacks were not permitted to gather and communicate in moderate to large numbers,” added Jones. The policy’s purpose “is to disrupt the means by which prisoners may … act upon their human rights and dissent their treatment.”

In theory, exceptions are supposed to be made for “approved inmate to inmate correspondence, legal correspondence, advocacy groups, and/or educational information,” as the complete email from the warden’s office at FCI Waseca explained. But the BOP’s Special Investigative Services (SIS) has blanket authority to enforce bans as they see fit. Prisoners are told that they can appeal these bans, but Wrice explained that many have been waiting for up to two years for reversals of bans.

“These decisions are not made in haste and without first considering all parties or policies involved,” retorted Emery Nelson of the BOP Office of Public Affairs in Washington, D.C. “The specific problem is very thoroughly investigated, and a corrective action plan that fits within the scope of the policy is set in motion that is designed to combat the issue at hand and not unnecessarily limit privileged telephonic or electronic communication.… This is simply a tool available to all wardens that do not violate existing policies, laws, or rights.”

It is difficult to understand how the BOP could not see the inherent violation of the First Amendment in this policy, especially as the prison-specific bans apply to all prisoners in that facility and national bans apply to all of the roughly 156,000 federal prisoners in the U.S.

While the ban disproportionately impacts formerly incarcerated individuals with previous convictions that work within legal, media or advocacy organizations, Truthout could not locate any records of arrests or sentencing post-release, and the BOP provided no evidence of investigations implicating any such individual or group in wrongdoing, despite Truthout’s request for any probative evidence of such.

One of those organizations banned by FCI Waseca is the ACLU’s National Prison Project (NPP), while the national bans on advocacy organizations or legal counsel apply almost exclusively to those run by former federal prisoners, including Amy Ralston Povah, founder of the CAN-DO Foundation, which works on a multitude of issues facing women in prison, especially clemency pleas and extreme sentences.

Many former federal prisoners who have gone on to represent the currently incarcerated in their capacity as attorneys, paralegals and/or heads of advocacy groups have been banned from phone or email contact with BOP prisoners nationwide in the last few months. They include Samaritan Projects, the National Council on Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls (The National Council), Upstate Paralegal Services and attorney Brandon Sample.

“The National Council is appalled at FCI Waseca’s decision to block our communication with our members incarcerated at Waseca. We are working on reversing this decision,” Ari Goode, communications director for The National Council, told Truthout. “If our informal efforts are not successful, we will take all necessary action to reopen this channel of communication so that we can continue to support these women and make sure their voices are heard.”

Chad Marks’s Freedom Fighters was blocked in February 2024. Marks filed a lawsuit (Chad Marks v. Federal Bureau of Prisons) that same month. The ban means that Marks’s clients cannot contact him (and vice versa) via phone or email for urgent matters. This complicates every aspect of Marks’s legal work. “They’re making incredible allegations, targeting former prisoners who are doing incredible work helping prisoners get released and get justice,” Marks said.

It is likely that there are more national blocks in place but a comprehensive list could not be obtained, as prisoners only find out about new bans when they try to send emails or make calls.

Wrice attempted to send me two emails, one of which included a typed copy of what it looks like to get the notification of a blocked person or group, but both emails were intercepted en route and never reached me. A scan of an empty envelope was also returned to Wrice, but the enclosed photos never reached me. In addition, three of my emails arrived to him with all of my text erased completely.

By regulation, the BOP is supposed to provide some kind of explanation as to why correspondence does not reach the person to whom it is intended. Not one of these situations yielded any kind of an explanation from the BOP, thus lending even more weight to the sense shared by prisoners that everything they write, say and do is being watched and controlled in a way that can be described as mass prison surveillance.

“People have no fight left in them,” admitted Wrice. “Prisoners want to keep their heads down and not say anything to anyone.”

The apprehension that prisoners now feel is palpable. Where incarcerated individuals in general could once count on their mail to reach intended destinations and felt they could share stories with journalists and other outsiders, it is getting harder to find those willing to withstand the retaliatory hammer that eventually comes down on their heads.

“The First Amendment right of incarcerated people to contact legal services and advocacy organizations has been recognized by the Supreme Court for more than 50 years,” David Fathi, director of the now-banned ACLU’s NPP, told Truthout. “Any intentional interference with this right would be a serious violation of clearly established law.”

Fathi noted that the NPP has “sometimes noticed a sudden drop in mail we receive from a given prison or jail … (especially) when we have active litigation at the facility and are encouraging our clients to write to us with information or concerns. While we have often suspected affirmative interference by staff … we have never obtained definitive proof that it was intentional interference rather than negligence or carelessness.”

FCI Waseca has unintentionally raised its profile by making its censorship tactics known in a memo, but other BOP prisons have the same policies in place to one degree or another, according to Marks, who spent 17 years in the federal system. In the situations where the policy has not been officially announced, Marks recalled that SIS officers simply referred to the bans on double contacts when they enforced them.

“If they suspect legal services, then why aren’t they investigating instead of just blocking us?” Marks said. “The real issue is that there is no oversight. There is no accountability. They can do what they want.”

An unclassified but redacted 2020 Office of the Inspector General report revealed that the BOP had blocked a total of 114 email addresses since 2005. That number has certainly grown, but exact figures are difficult to confirm.

Prisoners who email or call someone who also appears in another person’s list of contacts are punished inconsistently and with no official charge of misconduct that would lead to a written infraction that remains in a prisoner’s case file. There is thus no way for a prisoner to file an appeal or grievance of any kind.

More than anything, federal prisoners have the acute feeling that telling the truth is a life-endangering prospect.

“We are not safe,” Wrice put it. “I think they want us all to fight and kill each other. We need help here.”

But as long as the BOP is watching, listening, recording, retaliating and censoring, communication with the outside world is effectively being silenced.

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