By Michael Bailey
Other than the COVID-19 restrictions, the Pennsylvania Department of Correction’s (DOC) decision to contract with Smart Communications in Florida has been the most harmful policy change in recent times, in terms of its adverse impact on the everyday lives of incarcerated people.
In prison, mail plays a far more significant role than is the case in the outside world, and the fact that people incarcerated in Pennsylvania are no longer able to receive actual letters and cards from loved ones has been a game-changer for incarcerated people and their families.
The sterile uniform photocopies they receive now bear little resemblance to and are an unacceptable substitute for the meaningful sensory experience involved in handling an actual piece of mail. For people who are incarcerated, letters and cards are one of their primary lifelines to the outside world, and until recently, one of the few rights they were guaranteed.
The decision to enact this change was a rash response to the problem of drugs coming into prisons through the mail and more specifically, to a few vague and unsubstantiated claims that staff had become sick after coming in contact with K2 or fentanyl in the mail.
Even if people do send mail containing drugs into prisons, it has not been proven that this is what has caused the sort of adverse reactions described by DOC officials, and it is well-documented that staff are a frequent source of drugs in DOC facilities.
The DOC could institute less draconian measures that would prevent the introduction of drugs into prisons while allowing incarcerated people to receive their mail. Here, it is worth pointing out that the DOC recently revamped their procedures for books, magazines, and newspapers.
The new policy created a centralized reception center in State College, Centre County that processes these publications before their delivery to the prisons.
This facility is operated by the DOC, and the wages paid will stay in Pennsylvania; in contrast to the contract with Smart Communications that paid $15 million in Pennsylvania taxpayer dollars to a corporation in Florida. It would seem that the DOC could develop a similar facility to process prisoner mail.
Unfortunately, a legal challenge to this policy would likely be difficult. Around the same time that the contract with Smart Communications was signed and as the policy changed regarding publications, the DOC had also changed their procedures for legal mail, requiring that it be photocopied by staff at the facility; the incarcerated person received the copies and the originals were stored for an indeterminate time period.
This was such a clear violation of the right to confidentiality between attorney and client that after lawsuits were filed by numerous groups who advocate on behalf of incarcerated people, the DOC agreed to rescind the policy, but only after intense litigation.
On the issue of non-legal mail, the legal rights are less straightforward, and for the time being on this issue, due to the challenges in bringing a lawsuit on this issue, the fight will need to be waged by grassroots organizations in the political sphere.
The three-year contract with Smart Communications is up for renewal in September of this year.
The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections should not renew its contract with Smart Communications. To renew the contract would be to the detriment of incarcerated people in Pennsylvania and their loved ones. We urge the DOC to consider a different approach—one that respects the humanity of people incarcerated in Pennsylvania.
Michael Bailey is the Intake Attorney for the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project, an organization that advances the constitutional and civil rights of people incarcerated and detained in Pennsylvania. Mr. Bailey corresponds and provides legal advice to hundreds of incarcerated people every year.