(Canva image/The Alaska Beacon)
Even with the primacy of email, text messages and instant messaging, there’s still no feeling quite like opening the mailbox and seeing a card or a letter from a friend or loved one sitting there waiting for you.
And if you’re incarcerated in a Pennsylvania state prison, those cards and letters literally can be a lifeline from home.
But the commonwealth is one of at least 14 states that has eliminated direct mail to incarcerated people and replaced it with scans whose quality is often so bad that they’re impossible to read, according to a 2021 commentary published by the Philadelphia Inquirer.
And a newly released report by the Prison Policy Initiative runs down the emotional, psychological, and economic cost of the practice, describing it as a “harsh and exploitative new trend,” that lines the pockets of private corporations at the expense of the incarcerated.
The practice “strips away the privacy and the sentimentality of mail, which is often the least expensive and most-used form of communication between incarcerated people and their loved ones,” the report’s author, Leah Wang, wrote.
That’s been the case in Pennsylvania since at least 2018, when the state Department of Corrections contracted with a firm called Smart Communications, which bills itself as “an all-in-one inmate communication platform.”
Speaking to the Inquirer in 2018, the families of incarcerated Pennsylvanians called the then-new mail policy “devastating.”
“On two occasions, I’ve received only the photocopy of the envelope that the mail came in, but not the letters,” Robert Pezzeca, who is now incarcerated at SCI-Coal Township, told the newspaper at the time.
Pezzeca filed a grievance asking for the mail to be reprinted, but it was rejected, the Inquirer reported.
“So I don’t expect to ever get my mail,” he said.
Officials at the state Department of Corrections have defended the move, saying it’s needed to stamp out drug smuggling by mail, the Inquirer reported in 2018.
But according to the newly released report, such policies rarely result in safety improvements, noting that “early analyses in Pennsylvania and Missouri suggest that mail scanning is having little to no effect on the frequency of overdoses and drug use.”
Instead, “this extreme interference with mail will have a chilling effect on correspondence, reducing the overall volume of mail sent into prisons. People who send mail to prisons don’t want their letters and artwork scanned into a searchable database and/or destroyed, two common features of mail scanning,” Wang wrote.
“Scanning is a needlessly complicated and costly practice that violates privacy and stifles communication, as we learned when many jails started postcard-only policies (This effect may be desirable for prison administrators and correctional staff.),” Wang wrote.
And if the intent of the corrections process is to rehabilitate and to prevent people from returning to custody in the future, depriving them of physical mail short-circuits that effort, Wang argued.
“Physical mail carries great sentimental value for incarcerated people, which translates into a more hopeful experience behind bars,” Wang wrote. “Taking that away has real, measurable consequences for mental health, behavior, and even recidivism after release.
“Incarcerated people return to their mail over and over to be reminded of their support networks; scanned mail, on the other hand, is often low-quality or incomplete, lacking the same meaning” Wang concluded. “Even if contraband occasionally enters prisons through the mail, the practice of scanning all mail senselessly punishes all incarcerated people and their families for a few infractions.”
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