By mYia X and Phebe Eckfeldt
Banning paper letters for the incarcerated: Would you consider this torture? Would you consider this sensory deprivation? Would you consider this a violation of human rights? We do!
Imagine not having seen your family, children, loved ones for years, and now you are unable to receive paper mail from them. This means no birthday, anniversary or graduation cards. No love letters or picture postcards. No crayon drawings from your 4-year-old or photos of the new baby in the family. Nothing to hang on the wall in your cell to look at daily and cheer you up. A letter is tactile, something you can hold in your hand, smell perfume on, read over and over. It is a lifeline to those behind bars.
Ban on paper mail is ‘punishment’
Susan M.’s disabled brother has been in prison in Massachusetts for 27 years. She explained to Workers World: “This is gratuitous punishment. The Department of Correction weaponizes COVID-19 to further isolate prisoners. There have been no visits since last March, only adding to the previously escalating restrictions affecting contact between inside and outside.
“Months prior to COVID-19, the DOC curtailed written correspondence by banning prisoners’ receipt of original hard-copy mail. Cards and letters are now sloppily photocopied by disgruntled guards. Nothing from loved ones is ever held by the incarcerated. Such constraints cut off the family and surveil us at the same time. Everything that is written between us is seen by staff and stored.”
Susan explained further: “This practice has a chilling effect. Correspondence is a lifeline inside. Some people get only one or two letters a year. Communication is an intimate connection that makes them feel human again. They can also tell us what is happening, give advice and help us. This reciprocal contact restores their humanness. It keeps them connected to the larger world.”
In Massachusetts, guards are photocopying all letters that come into the Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center and six other prisons. Guards resent having to do this, and copies are often illegible or missing pages. State prison administrators and correctional officers claim this process is needed to deter contraband from being sent in.
There is “not publicly robust data suggesting mail is the primary culprit” for introducing drugs into prisons, wrote Ella Fassler. (Truthout, Feb. 25) Attorney Sara Rose, with the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, says evidence shows “the vast majority, at least of the drugs they discuss coming in, were coming in through staff or visitors.” (Prison Legal News, February 2020)
The exponential push for ending physical mail is primarily about expanding profit opportunities for private companies while simultaneously placing undue burdens on the incarcerated, their families and support networks.
A Tufts University report says, “there are thousands of companies and a wide range of contracts in both private and public prisons.” A staggeringly high number of corporations are involved in the prison industrial complex — a whole network of parties with vested interests. (tufts.eduprisondivestment, 2021)
“The Prison Industry: Mapping Private Sector Players,” a report released by Worth Rises in May 2020, identifies and “exposes over 4,100 corporations that profit from the devastating mass incarceration of our nation’s marginalized communities.” Billions of dollars are stolen from families — loved ones and children — who are supporting their incarcerated loved ones.
There is a lot of money to be made through privatization of services in prison: on food, phone calls and books. If Smart Communications (SC) is contracted to a prison, they get MailGuard as an add-on, which includes tablets and kiosks. MailGuard, which started in 2020, is a pilot program with the Federal Bureau of Prisons.
Tablets are sometimes free, but incarcerated people use them to send emails and photos and buy books, music and games. This means big profits for companies like SC. It means lots of expenses for the poorest and most vulnerable — the incarcerated and their families.
This communications company got a contract with Pennsylvania DOC in 2018 for $4 million per year. SC wants to introduce MailGuard to Massachusetts prisons. This means that physical mail would be sent to SC in Florida, to be inspected, scanned, digitally forwarded and loaded into a database. Originals are destroyed. The scanned letter/mail is sent back to the prison for viewing in a public kiosk (with no privacy) or via tablet or mailed back as photocopies for staff to print and distribute.
Families pay the price
Most services for those in prison are privatized by subcontractors, and they exploit the incarcerated and their family members. What they provide is often low quality and violates inmates’ civil rights.
A report entitled “Who Pays? The True Cost of Incarceration on Families,” states: “One in three families go into debt just to be able to communicate with their incarcerated loved one.” (whopaysreport.org, September 2015)
Families must put money into email accounts, or sometimes incarcerated people must buy “stamps” to use email. There is an increase in “stamp” costs when character counts increase or there are attachments. Mail through MailGuard can be delayed two days, which means families often must use email and pay more.
In most cases, the incarcerated person was the major earner in a family. And 54% were the main sources of income, according to the article, “Prison Industrial Complex Nickel and Diming Inmates for their Mail.” (Business Insider, March 14)
Companies like SC are making millions off the most vulnerable and the poorest. Single mothers and women on welfare must decide between paying for food and children’s essentials or emails and phone calls. It is exceedingly difficult to sustain connections with loved ones and to foster meaningful relationships with children.
This “profit-driven incarceration,” as prisoners’ rights group Just Detention International calls it, continues to be emotionally and financially stressful to the families and loved ones and potentially alienates or drives them apart.
For disabled people with traumatic brain injury or visual impairment, tablets and kiosks are not accessible. For those in solitary confinement, tablets are either forbidden or restricted. JDI stresses it “undermines crucial confidential communications, including between incarcerated survivors of sexual abuse and outside advocates.”
In January, there was a hearing on the privatization of paper mail organized by the Massachusetts DOC. The number of people attempting to join the virtual meeting overwhelmed the capabilities of Zoom, thus limiting overall public engagement.
Solidarity is potent in the fightback against the policies and exploitation facing the incarcerated and their families.
Tami Eldridge, an incarcerated mother currently at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, stated in an interview conducted last year: “My children and I have irreplaceable memories of moments and events that we can look back on and share, that would not have been possible through any of these new forms of communication. I have what some of us long-termers call ‘an archive of love letters’ from my children that I am able to revisit.
Eldridge stressed: “Moments like my children’s first time writing in scripted letters, their first picture they drew of me, their first song they wrote, them learning how to write poetry, their first crush and my most prized treasure: simply writing a few lines to show that, even when they were busy, they thought to say something to me and send it with a stamp.” (The Brennan Center, Sept. 29, 2020)