Not many people send letters through the post these days, but in prisons and jails across the country, the ritual of the mail call has long been a daily sacrament. When Dana Lomax-Williams was incarcerated in Pennsylvania several years ago, paper mail was a lifeline that connected her to her family on the outside. But now, as a free woman and the president of the Coalition to Abolish Death by Incarceration–Delaware County, which advocates for the rights of people serving life sentences, she cannot return the favor to those still behind bars. In 2018, Pennsylvania’s Department of Corrections (DOC) transitioned to a privately run scanning system that turns every piece of mail into a digital facsimile. This policy combined with a prison e-mail system run by another third-party contractor, she said, obstructs and undermines her communications. She said that the DOC’s photocopied scans of her paper mail are sometimes missing pages and her e-mails are redacted when they are received by her clients.
“It’s awful because the mail is so vital,” she told me. “I know when I was behind the wall…[mail] inspired you, it motivated you, and [would] lift you up [when dealing with] a lot of different things that you go through behind the walls.” When that correspondence is mediated through a scanner, she said, “I think this is another tactic to keep them separated from their families.”
Incarcerated people in Pennsylvania receive copies of their paper mail after it is scanned by a Florida-based service called MailGuard, which sends the image file of each piece of mail to the DOC, to be printed out and delivered to the recipients. The scanning system—run by Smart Communications, a telecommunications company that serves carceral facilities in more than half of US states—was implemented to prevent drug smuggling through postal mail. Slips of paper infused with fentanyl and other drugs were allegedly being widely trafficked through the mail into prisons. The idea is that by eliminating paper mail they could close a “security loophole.” (Paper legal correspondence, however, can still be sent directly to people in prison.)
Pennsylvania was one of the first states to adopt a scanning system, but in recent years, correctional facilities across the country have banned or restricted postal mail while pushing fee-based e-mail systems as an alternative. Advocates for the rights of the incarcerated say the loss of paper mail and the shift to private electronic-communications platforms can isolate incarcerated individuals and make them more vulnerable to exploitation and surveillance.
Civil liberties groups say that restricting paper mail amounts to collective punishment. Research on incarcerated populations has shown that maintaining communication with loved ones reduces recidivism and helps ensure stability and mental wellness after release. Advocacy groups also point out that contraband is commonly smuggled into prison through staff, not the mail. Prison Policy Initiative (PPI), along with civil liberties and community organizations including the ACLU and Electronic Frontier Foundation, wrote a letter last summer to Attorney General Merrick Garland, criticizing a pilot program for MailGuard that the Federal Bureau of Prisons had recently run in two prisons, which it was considering expanding. “MailGuard places profit-based incentives above the well-being of incarcerated people with minimal to no security benefit,” they wrote, and could be “particularly harmful for incarcerated survivors of sexual abuse, people with a mental illness, LGBTQ people, and other at-risk communities.”
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Robert Pezzeca, who is serving a life sentence in a prison in Dallas, Pa., wrote to me in an e-mail, “I also don’t understand how it’s even legal for the [Department of Corrections] to contract this type of thing out to someone else. How do u ask a company to open our mail? How is this legal?”
He said that his “most prized possessions” in prison are “handwritten letters and pictures” from his fiancée and hisgrandmother, who both died years ago. “They are worth more to me than this $160 tablet I type on, the $200 19-inch TV they sold me. Now, mail has become less meaningful. Photos are on regular copy machine paper.”
MailGuard users in Pennsylvania have also complained about the poor quality of the scan printouts that the DOC produces, pointing to photos with faces blotted out by shadows or blurred details.
Lorraine Haw, whose son has been incarcerated for 27 years in Pennsylvania, told me in an e-mail, “I use to be able to send my son many heartfelt letters and cards, especially birthday cards and encouraging cards. We used to play Tic-Tac-Toe over our mailings. My great-grand babies used to send him their drawings of their art.” But now that everything must be reduced to photocopies, she added, “we have not sent my son anything! My son asked us not to send anything because of the bad copies that they received where they couldn’t tell what was sent! … You cannot scan or copy the tears of a loved one!!!… Where is the humanity for those incarcerated???”
Jon Logan, CEO of Smart Communications, acknowledged the loss of some of the sentimental experience of paper correspondence. “I see the advantage and benefit of knowing I’m touching something that someone else touched,” he said. But as a security matter, he added, “the outweighing factor is that that same piece of paper that they’re touching in some cases is also a paper that’s been soaked in fentanyl, whether it’s the officer touching it or the inmate touching it, or the inmate ripping off pieces of it and running a drug operation and profiting selling drugs through prison.”
By blocking one potential smuggling route he argued, “we’re saving lives and we’re getting inmates finally off drugs while they’re incarcerated.”
What MailGuard calls “postal mail elimination” has been implemented in prisons and jails in about 27 states. In addition to the MailGuard pilot program launched in 2020 by the federal Bureau of Prisons, North Carolina announced last October plans to expand mail scanning at state prisons with a contractor called TextBehind. Starting January 18, Florida implemented a ban on paper mail at four state prisons.
Some correctional authorities are simultaneously offering e-mail services through private contractors, which boast that online messaging is faster, more efficient, and more secure than paper mail. But advocates criticize the hidden social and financial costs for the incarcerated and their loved ones. Digital communications services, which provide incarcerated people limited access to online content and e-mail accounts—as well as the ability to view scans of paper mail on a digital device—are often financed by user fees and purchases of devices, which means the cost of running the system falls largely on people who have virtually no income and their often financially strapped families.
In Pennsylvania, GTL Financial Services provides e-mail accounts that incarcerated people can use for 25 cents per message and read on a tablet that sells for over $140. Both the incarcerated and their family and friends must purchase message credits in $5 increments. E-mailing people from prison is, word for word, typically more expensive than postal mail, because messages are limited in length—usually between 1,500 to 6,000 characters, according to a 2016 report by PPI. The report pointed out that had Martin Luther King Jr. e-mailed his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” in 1,500-character increments, he would have needed to pay for 27 separate messages, or about $6.25. The fees for digital communication also compound the sometimes crushing cost of prison phone calls. Prisons can charge upwards of $6 for more than 15 minutes in about half of states, according to PPI.
Nadia Narnor, a community organizer with the Pittsburgh-based Coalition to Abolish Death by Incarceration–West, thinks the whole communications system is unethical. If an individual cannot afford to spend $5 for 20 e-mails, she said, “that’s just kind of terrible that you have to spend money to be able to speak to people, because already they don’t make enough money in the jobs they have on the inside at all,” she said, referring to manual jobs that incarcerated people often take on, earning pennies an hour in some cases. The cost is “just another barrier and…it feels like it is on purpose.”
Pennsylvania DOC Communications Director Ryan Tarkowski said in an e-mailed statement, “The DOC’s goal is to keep the incarcerated population connected with their loved ones as best as possible, while maintaining the safety and security of our facilities.” The DOC did not directly respond to inquiries about mail being intercepted and screened by staff or the possibility of incarcerated people being targeted over the contents of messages, but referred me to the Pennsylvania Inmate Handbook, which states, “The Department may read mail sent to you if the Department has reason to believe it is being used to plan an escape, other illegal activity, a misconduct offense, or in connection with a Department investigation.” (Every e-mail sent and received by incarcerated people, meanwhile, is “subject to review for appropriate content.”)
The Covid-19 pandemic has made incarcerated people even more dependent on communications technology over the past two years, as many jails and prisons have sharply limited in-person visitation as a health precaution. Many facilities have been setting up video chats in lieu of in-person visits, which has generated complaints of glitchy connections and poor-quality video in Florida and Pennsylvania.
In a 2019 analysis of its contracts with prisons and jails, PPI revealed that prison telecommunications vendors often market “bundled” communications services that ostensibly cost the prison or jail system nothing. Bundling services—for instance, providing phone calls, video calls, money transfer, and e-mail together in a package—enables the vendor to implement the telecommunications infrastructure with the expectation that inmates and their loved ones will ultimately cover the costs through user fees, and perhaps even generate new revenue streams for correctional authorities. For example, the report notes that Smart Communications “offered to charge families high prices to make phone calls and return 100% of the revenue to the jail itself”—a financial incentive that PPI calls a “kickback.”
Logan countered that Smart Communications offers a valuable, efficient e-mail service that incarcerated people willingly pay for, and that its phone services give correctional authorities all the revenue so that “the agency can use it for the betterment of inmate lives” by investing it in improved facilities, programs, and staff.
Online communication in the prison system may be valuable for law enforcement as well. Because corrections agencies using MailGuard scan and store electronic copies of mail sent to and from incarcerated people, any correspondence could potentially be exploited in a criminal investigation involving an incarcerated person.
The enhanced ability to monitor e-mails and to digitize paper mail adds to concerns about the privacy of the incarcerated and their family and friends. “I have censored my own personal letters so that loved ones don’t say anything too personal,” wrote Pezzeca. He recalled that when he wanted to write to a family member who had experienced a sexual assault, “we struggle to discuss it in a healthy way because all communications now are recorded.”
Linda McFarlane, executive director of Just Detention International, said the privacy concerns surrounding mail scanning are especially serious for the people her organization work with: survivors of prison sexual assault, who often want to share their experiences confidentially with advocates on the outside. Even with paper letters, McFarlane said, tracking and digitizing every message means that “survivors of sexual abuse would be forever in a searchable database—that’s going to have a chilling effect for sure on how many people write. It’s going to make people think twice about what they can share with their loved ones, because who knows how things are going to be taken?”