On August 29, the Pennsylvania Dept. of Corrections (PADOC) locked down all the state prisons. 12 days later, the lockdown ended and a new terribly restrictive mail policy was instituted. As part of a $15 million “security” plan, $4 million is going to Smart Communications, a Florida company started in 2009. All mail is to be sent directly to an address in Florida. Smart Communications, using their 2017 improved virtual mailroom, “Mail Guard, will scan and digitally forward all non-legal letters, photos or drawings. Prisoners will receive only a printout. Since the new policy began 3 months ago, there have been numerous complaints of missing pages, misdirected letters, long delays and illegible copies. Photos are sometimes shrunk to fit 4 to a page and often converted from color to black and white.
According to a recent survey of incarcerated people by the Vera institute for Justice, letters are used by 92% of prisoners to stay in touch with friends and family. Many studies have shown that maintaining supportive relationships with the outside world hugely helps a person when they are released. For many, the thought that their correspondence will be stored in a searchable database is a deterrent to even writing a letter. Discouraging written communications in any way is harmful and despicable.
The “rationale” for the new policies is a supposed series of incidents where guards got sick after exposure to drugs called synthetic cannabinoids, K2. In interviews in two Philadelphia newspapers, several medical toxicology experts have expressed their belief that it is unlikely that people were sickened by incidental exposure, arguing that more likely it was “mass psychogenic illness” – a sort of contagious anxiety response. To quote S. Wilson, one of our prisoner subscribers in PA, “The real reason is to further monetize incarceration.” Yet another way for private companies to make money off of the prison system, actually off of prisoners themselves.
Legal mail (anything from a lawyer’s office) will be opened in front of the recipient and inspected. The prisoner will then receive a copy. The whole process will be videotaped and the recording kept by Smart Communications. The ACLU PA, PA Institutional Law Project and the Abolitionist Law Center first sent a letter in September to the PADOC strongly objecting to the new policy. On October 30, they filed two lawsuits. “My greatest fear is that my legal mail will become the reading material of the superintendent or worse, my opponent,” said Leticia Chavez-Ford, a civil rights lawyer. Ordinarily she sends out 60-70 letters to inmates every month. Other lawyers have said such fears have already led to weeks-long back logs in requests for legal phone calls. At some prisons, officials are refusing to allow such calls unless a court date is imminent.
Jones v Brown (3rd Cir.2006) states that policies that interfere with protected communications or strip those protected communications of their confidentiality, impinge upon the inmate’s right to freedom of speech. The two current lawsuits also claim that the PADOC’s changes are unwarranted and unnecessary because there is no evidence that legal mail is a major source of illegal drugs. A lawyer at the ACLU-PA reported that the PADOC only presented two instances.
At first, the PADOC cut off all access to volunteer-run free book programs and limited prisoner ability to get books from publishers. Instead they said they would provide access to E-Books, but the prisoner would have to buy a tablet and buy books from a DOC-approved vendor, GTL, and place their orders thru the PADOC. After an onslaught of angry letters and phone calls, the DOC gave up that plan. Books can again be sent by free-donation programs like Books thru Bars and “original sources” like publishers and bookstores. Thousands of books are sent into prisons every year by Books thru Bars, just one of several book programs.
As the new policy stands now, legal mail should still be sent to an individual prisoner’s own institution, books and magazines are sent c/o Security Processing Center, Inmate’s name and #, 268 Bricker Rd, Bellefonte PA 16823 and all other mail is sent c/o Smart Communication/PADOC, Inmate’s name, #, Institution, PO Box 33028, St. Petersburg FL 33733
Prison officials around the country have been trying to make similar laws. This year, New York, Maryland and the Federal Bureau of Prisons all started new policies drastically restricting inmate book purchases. They all quickly rescinded them in response to public pressure and threats of legal action. In PA, there have been rallies and other protests against the new policy. In December, a few groups organized letter writing campaigns, sending angry holiday cards to Governor Wolf (who completely supports the DOC) and Corrections Secretary Wetzel. One woman wrote, “I hope you get the touch and feel the originality of this card because my loved one won’t … [ever be able to].”
Write or call governor Wolf, 508 Main Capitol Bldg. Harrisburg PA 17120, 717-787-2500, email@example.com and corrections secretary John Wetzel, 1920 Technology Parkway, Mechanicsburg PA 17050, 717-728-2573, firstname.lastname@example.org
178 copies of UltraViolet were sent to PA prisoners in September and all of them were returned. We emailed a DOC official, who sent us new instructions for this issue. Several of you wrote us explaining the new policy and requesting a replacement which we sent at the beginning of December c/o Security Processing in Bellefonte as per instructions. If you get a chance, let us know if you’ve received any UltraViolets. Of course, if we get them back, we’ll know you didn’t and we’ll try to figure out why.
PA isn’t the only state to make it hard for prisoners to get mail, just the most egregious and the most public. Some prisons only allow postcards, no letters. South Dakota, for instance just sent back all the newsletters we mailed to South Dakota State Prison in Sioux Falls because, all of a sudden, address labels aren’t allowed. Last month, one of the State Prisons in Florida changed their address from a street # to a PO Box and then returned all the newsletters that had been sent, with no explanation. Only a letter from an inmate subscriber alerted us to the change. FL DOC also seems to move prisoners around a lot but doesn’t forward their mail. Some of our subscribers have been moved 2-3 times a year. Federal prisoners also are often moved to totally different states, also with unforwarded mail. Occasionally we get an UltraViolet back, officially censored for “violent words” or “support for a demonstration” or “inciting prisoners”. It all seems so random. Some mailroom person will return a newsletter with the new address, others will black out the addressee’s name and address so completely, we can’t tell who or where it came from. Often we hear from you about a missed newsletter that never even came back to us. Where did it go?
We want to thank Mark T, Ms. Juicy Queen Bee, Stephen W, David B and Chris C who wrote to us this month about the destructive new policies in PA. We greatly appreciate all the mail we receive from Inside (and outside tho that’s rarer). Please keep writing.