Physical Mail Was My Lifeline to the Outside World — and Now It’s Gone

For hundreds of thousands of incarcerated folks across the nation, receiving mail from our family members is a supply of momentary pleasure, a tangible connection to household and mates within the type of birthday playing cards, child footage or handwritten letters bringing information from dwelling.

On lots of my worst days inside, listening to my identify known as out for mail has lifted my spirits; all my issues fade into the background as I tear open an envelope containing photographs of the household canine.

However now I’ll by no means get one other piece of mail once more whereas I’m in jail.

In January, the Florida Division of Corrections (FDC) banned the 86,000 prisoners in its custody from receiving bodily mail. All incoming mail (excluding authorized paperwork) shall be digitized by JPay, a for-profit contractor. Incarcerated residents will solely have the ability to view scanned variations of our letters and pictures on tablets or at communal kiosks in cell blocks or dorms.

Over the previous few years, a number of states have adopted the identical restrictions — in addition to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, which oversees 122 amenities — in an try to forestall contraband like medication from coming into correctional establishments. However in line with Nazish Dholakia of the Vera Institute of Justice, out of the three.1 million gadgets of contraband that entered the FDC between January 2019 and April 2021, roughly simply 1 % got here via the mail.

The truth is, reports suggest that in most prisons and jails within the U.S., correctional officers are the first supply of medicine and different contraband, not the mail. The Justice Division recognized this pattern way back to 2003.

Eliminating bodily mail severs one of many solely palpable ties now we have with the surface world. When my father handed away unexpectedly final 12 months, the numerous sympathy playing cards I obtained introduced me a small measure of consolation. I’d learn the handwritten notes time and again with tears in my eyes. I held the final image ever taken of my dad — a shiny 3″-by-5″ print despatched by my stepmom — in my fingers for hours, memorizing his options earlier than inserting it reverently in my photograph album for safekeeping.

Getting mail in jail is a time-honored ritual courting again centuries. Held inside a Birmingham jail within the Jim Crow South, Martin Luther King Jr. is claimed to have tucked a letter from his spouse into his Bible for inspiration. Oscar Wilde had a bootleg pen pal. Many despondent prisoners through the years have discovered hope from a easy written phrase or a snapshot of the life they left behind.

We treasure these mementos behind bars as a result of now we have little else.

Below the brand new coverage of digitizing mail, incarcerated individuals are dropping the visceral expertise of touching a letter or smelling fragrance on an envelope, however we should additionally endure the technical issues related to a nascent system.

The addition of scanning has resulted in prolonged wait instances for mail supply, blurry pictures and unreadable letters. Lacking pages are a typical prevalence, whereas some mail is simply misplaced in a quagmire of inefficiency.

Within the FDC, private tablets issued by JPay continuously malfunction, and replacements can take months to reach. With no pill, the one choice is to view incoming mail on a communal kiosk that regularly breaks. Some days the road to make use of a kiosk is longer than the cellphone line, leading to arguments and dysfunction.

And nonetheless, medication like K2, an artificial cannabinoid, flood prisons and jails nationwide.

Texas prisons stopped in-person visits and restricted mail in 2020, however that didn’t cease medication from coming into the system. In Pennsylvania, drug positivity charges really elevated after a digital mail service was applied, in line with The Intercept’s Lauren Gill.

Jail mail has lengthy been topic to inspection, however with for-profit corporations working just about unregulated, new privateness points emerge: Family and friends of the incarcerated now have their correspondence and photographs saved on a database — a digital diary compiled with out their consent.

Along with storing private info indefinitely, applications like MailGuard, created by the Florida-based firm Sensible Communications, have the flexibility to share the sender’s electronic mail and IP addresses, GPS location and residential deal with with correctional businesses.

With no actual proof of expensive digital mail companies stopping the movement of contraband into prisons and jails, one has to ask about different motives.

Firms like JPay have lengthy exploited Florida prisoners for companies starting from cellphone calls to canteen provisions to medical co-pays. Proscribing bodily mail may simply be the most recent ploy to extract cash from our hardship.

For instance, incarcerated residents within the FDC have the choice of paying to print copies of our mail for $0.25 for black-white printouts and $0.50 for coloration photographs, including to the lengthy listing of revenue-generating schemes already thriving within the felony authorized system. Charging for printed copies of our mail is an egregious apply being utilized in lots of different states who’ve digitized mail, together with California, Washington and Texas. In any case, our households have already paid the postage for our mail… why ought to we pay once more?

It’s exhausting for me to think about not receiving mail anymore, and more durable nonetheless to consider dropping such an necessary lifeline to my family members. A powerful social reference to folks on the surface encourages profitable reentry again into society. By proscribing mail, the FDC has needlessly restricted my help system within the identify of “safety.”