Will paper personal mail return to prisons? Corrections secretary says ‘no’

    Corrections Secretary John Wetzel speaks to the House Appropriations Committee. (Capital-Star photo by Sarah Anne Hughes)

    Since September, people incarcerated in Pennsylvania’s prison have not received original copies of their personal mail.

    Will that change? For the moment, the state’s Corrections secretary says “no.”

    Under a policy designed to keep drugs out of prisons, letters and photos are sent to Smart Communications, a Florida company with a three-year, $15.8 million contract with the state. Smart Communications scans the mail and sends a copy to the facility where the prisoner is held, so it can be printed and delivered.

    Three Democrats asked Corrections Secretary John Wetzel about that contract and its effect on Pennsylvania’s prisoners at a Monday House Appropriations hearing.

    Rep. Elizabeth Fiedler, D-Philadelphia, asked Wetzel if Corrections is considering changing the policy. Because of concerns about odorless and undetectable drugs in paper, the answer, for now, is “no,” he responded.

    Another Philadelphia Democrat, Rep. Maria Donatucci, said she’s heard from constituents concerned about the quality of the mail scans. Wetzel didn’t beat around the bush about that problem.

    “They’re terrible,” Wetzel told the Capital-Star after the hearing. “There’s no ifs, ands, or buts about it.”

    Wetzel said the department is “close to announcing” changes that will deal with poor quality and allow artwork made by children into prisons.

    Groups that work with incarcerated persons have been meeting with the Wolf administration in an attempt to have the mail policy overturned. Sean Damon, an organizer with the Philadelphia-based Amistad Law Project, previously told the Capital-Star the “mail policy is straining family connections” because of concerns about privacy.

    In response to a question from Donatucci, Wetzel said original mail copies are destroyed after 45 days. Copies are wiped from Smart Communications’ system after the same amount of time.

    When asked about bringing mail processing in-house, Wetzel told the Capital-Star it would be more expensive than outsourcing the task.

    Despite a falling prison population, Corrections’ costs are rising for personnel reasons like pensions.

    But, Wetzel added, the contract is only three years for a reason — meaning the department can reassess the situation in 2021.

    Both Donatucci and Rep. Ed Gainey, D-Allegheny, wanted to know why Corrections entered into a no-bid contract with Smart Communications, as opposed to another company.

    “They were the only company that could do it as quickly,” he said.

    Last week, the Corrections Department announced it would settle a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania and other groups that work with incarcerated persons over its legal mail policy. Under the proposed settlement, incarcerated people will be able to keep original copies of correspondence from courts and attorneys. Currently, prisoners receive a copy.

    Associate Editor Sarah Anne Hughes covers the governor and Pennsylvania's agencies. Before joining the Capital-Star, she was the state capitol reporter for Billy Penn and The Incline, and a 2018 corps member for Report for America. She was previously managing editor of Washington City Paper, editor-in-chief of DCist, and a national blogger for The Washington Post.

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