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New Massachusetts Rules Would Eliminate Handwritten Letters in Prison

The rules would increase surveillance of incarcerated people while also making written communications inaccessible.

“Paper mail is precious,” Black and Pink Massachusetts Communications and Outreach Coordinator Elijah Patterson testified on January 29 against rules proposed by the Massachusetts Department of Correction (MADOC). The rules would, if approved, formally substitute physical mail for an electronic, scanned copy or photocopy through a third-party vendor.

“It means so much to me to touch the same paper as people suffering in prisons, and when I trace my hand and they place theirs over it, it means a lot for them, too. In that moment, we are together,” Patterson said during the Zoom hearing.

Prison mail serves as a primary lifeline between the two worlds separated by barbed-wired walls and guard towers. Handwritten letters, oftentimes made special by imperfections or a doodle, are cherished and highly anticipated by many incarcerated people, particularly in the era of pandemic-inspired visitation bans.

Yet in May 2020, MADOC discreetly formalized an intent to set up a pilot program at Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center for one year that would eliminate physical mail. The notice outlined the agency’s intention of expanding the program to include all MADOC facilities following the pilot. Smart Communications, a company founded by former prison guards, has been contracted to implement this new system.

Under the Smart Communications-patented “MailGuard” system, mail intended for incarcerated people is generally addressed directly to the Florida-based company for scanning into a searchable database. Smart Communications advertises that the process will open “a whole new field of intelligence” for authorities. Scanned letters, cards and photographs are then sent back to kiosks or tablets within prisons for viewing, or are mailed back to the prison as photocopies.

MADOC had already been photocopying incarcerated peoples’ mail at Souza and at least six other facilities, according to DigBoston. The practice came to light primarily because of a lawsuit filed by Edward G. Wright, a man incarcerated at Souza-Baranowski. He alleged that the department violated the Massachusetts Administrative Procedures Act when it changed mail policy without holding a public hearing. The court sided with Wright, which has effectively delayed the full implementation of paperless mail.

Eliminating Paper Mail Could Increase Surveillance

The communications between incarcerated people and their loved ones are already subject to intrusive scrutiny, but Smart Communications’ online database presents an increased risk, Patterson told Truthout. “Many of our members, who are LGBTQI2S+ and/or living with HIV, are not able to be out in prison,” they said. “Scanning letters means creating an electronic copy that lives somewhere on the DOC servers. We do not have faith that the DOC will respect our members’ privacy and not access these files, or even simply keep them safe…. Truly, these regulations establish an expansive surveillance system with really alarming implications.”

While the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) says it will not scan legal mail, MADOC’s proposed rules allow for photocopying privileged correspondences in the presence of the incarcerated addressee.

Photocopying mail has already led to increased delays in some prisons, Lauren Bellis, co-founder of Massachusetts Incarcerated Individual Advocacy, told Truthout. And tablets are not accessible for some people with disabilities, such as some types of traumatic brain injury and visual impairment. “It really creates a problem for reasonable accommodation or equal access for incarcerated individuals with disabilities to be able to have the same experience of connecting with their loved ones,” Bellis said.

Bellis’s partner, a formerly incarcerated man who preferred anonymity, said that communication with the outside world is especially imperative for people in solitary confinement. But, since tablets are forbidden or restricted in solitary confinement, the new policy would disproportionately impact the most isolated and marginalized people.

Questionable Contraband Claims

Officials claim the elimination of paper mail, supported by mail privatization, will mitigate the introduction of drugs into the prison system. However, an analysis of the introduction of contraband in county jails in 2018 by the Prison Policy Initiative indicated staff are at least partially responsible for smuggling forbidden items. It found “20 jail staff members in 12 separate county jails were arrested, indicted, or convicted on charges of bringing in or planning to bring in contraband.”

Fentanyl smuggled into the Orleans Justice Center by jail staffers killed an incarcerated man in December 2018, a lawsuit filed on behalf of his family alleges.

Meanwhile, during a 16-month period in Florida, search teams identified a greater number of correctional staff with contraband cell phones than visitors.

Furthermore, we should question whether eliminating “contraband” — including items like cell phones that make life slightly more bearable for incarcerated people — should be a primary objective that overrides the importance of physical mail.

If the proposed regulations are approved, Massachusetts will be the second statewide carceral system to adopt Smart Communications’ MailGuard. In 2018, Smart Communications landed its first statewide contract with the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections at a price tag of around $4 million per year.

About two years later, the BOP began experimenting with photocopying mail. In response to a request for comment, the agency’s press office told Truthout: “The Bureau has conducted a pilot project at two sites to have general correspondence scanned off-site by a vendor and transmitted as an electronic file to staff who print and distribute these documents to the inmate population.” The BOP said it partnered with Smart Communications in March 2020 and “is considering the expansion of mail scanning pending funding.” The agency noted that its regulations forbid the photocopying of legal mail (such as correspondence with lawyers).

According to the BOP, the mail scanning program “reduced the number of synthetic drug introductions via general postal mail to effectively zero over the pilot project period.” When Truthout asked for underlying data to compare contraband introduction before and after the pilot programs, the press office did not send any statistics.

A 2016 Department of Justice report on “contraband interdiction efforts” highlighted BOP staff’s role in smuggling contraband and did not reference mail as a site of drug introduction. The report recommended that the BOP “develop uniform guidelines and criteria for conducting random staff pat searches across all institutions…” and to “restrict the size and content of personal property that staff may bring into BOP institutions.” The Federal Labor Relations Authority obstructed past attempts to implement more strict searches of staff.

Since the report was published, however, fentanyl, which can be sprayed on paper, has become increasingly trafficked. But there is not publicly available robust data suggesting mail is the primary culprit for introducing the drug into the prison-industrial complex.

Still, local jails across the country have been quietly contracting with Smart Communications since at least 2017. Virginia began photocopying mail in-house around the same time. Several jails — including Crawford County Justice Center in Arkansas and Roanoke City Jail in Virginia — had already switched to the MailGuard system by the time the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections changed its policy. And since then, at least four local jails have struck similar deals. While the company doesn’t typically charge jails for MailGuard, it profits by installing kiosks that offer other costly services, such as video visitation.

Before MailGuard, mail was one of the few aspects of prison life that hadn’t fallen into the clutches of the market. Worth Rises, a nonprofit advocacy organization dedicated to dismantling the prison industry, found that over 4,100 corporations profit off mass incarceration. “Private corporations helped build our punishment system and continue to support its expansion by donating to tough-on-crime political candidates, shifting costs onto those it targets, offering agencies lucrative partnerships, recruiting former government officials, and more,” it wrote in a report. However, the report notes, “Tackling the private industry will not alone end mass incarceration, but it is an essential step.”

As the Biden administration moves to sever contracts with some private prisons (notably not privately operated Immigration and Customs Enforcement confinement camps), activists rightly note that ending those contracts will not free a single person. Meanwhile, the growth of the prison mail industry serves as a reminder that the distinction between private and public prisons is increasingly trivial. The rise of in-house photocopying shows how public institutions can undermine prisoners’ rights without relying on private companies, too.

Advocates Speak Out Against Photocopied Mail

While many contracts between jails and Smart Communications have flown under the public’s radar, incarcerated people, activists and people with loved ones behind bars in Massachusetts are pushing back against the new proposed mail policy. More people joined MADOC’s January 29 hearing regarding the proposed regulations than the department’s Zoom subscription could handle.

Cassandra Bensahih, a coordinator of Massachusetts Against Solitary Confinement Coalition who was formerly incarcerated in Massachusetts, drew from her experiences to testify against the new proposed policy. “Mail makes us feel more normal and like we are a part of the world,” she said. “There is nothing like being able to touch a letter, reread it, go back over it. I still have a Christmas card from my daughter and I was incarcerated in 2007.… I cherish that card.”

Advocates in Massachusetts seem to have good reason for concern: In Pennsylvania, people with loved ones behind bars have reported unexplained mail rejections, severe delays in processing time and mind-numbing bureaucratic runarounds in online discussion boards. A moderator of the forum Prison Talk wrote that a majority of the 10 letters he sent per week were sent back to him without explanation in 2018. “There is no pattern as to which ones were delivered and which ones were returned even though my PC addresses all the envelopes the same way,” he wrote.

Another user based in Pennsylvania reported two-week delays in mail processing time, complicating an already tragic circumstance for their family. Their incarcerated loved one did not have an approved phone list, they wrote, “so sadly they learn of a relative’s death two weeks plus later, all alone, with no way to call home.” Many direct messages and emails sent to Smart Communications have gone unanswered, according to the user.

Claire Shubik-Richards, the executive director of Pennsylvania Prison Society, told Slate that her organization received complaints about mail not getting delivered, severe delays in delivery and misdeliveries. Scanned photocopies of photographs provided to Slate revealed blurry, low-quality images.

When asked for his thoughts on the department’s motives, Bellis’s formerly incarcerated partner said he thinks it’s a function of maintaining a grip on the prison population. “That’s where they hit somebody, with their mail, their communication. If something happens there, that’s what they do. Boom. Shut down mail, shut down emails,” he said. “Because they know we are going to need to communicate with our loved ones and make phone calls to complain about what’s going on, how we are being treated … that’s what I think is most important [to them]: control.”

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