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Ban on Physical Mail Slated for NYC Jails, Which Could Go Digital Instead

Prison is a scary place, very much by design. It’s a place you end up when convicted of crimes by the judicial system, or in some cases, if you’re merely awaiting trial. Once you go in as a prisoner, general freedom and a laundry list of other rights are denied to you. New York City is the latest in a long list of municipalities looking to expand that list to include a ban on inmates receiving physical mail.

To achieve this, prisons across the US are instead switching to digital-only systems, which would be run by a private entity. Let’s look at the how, what, and why of this contentious new idea.Mail Call No More

The right to receive mail is considered a fundamental right of the prisoner by the United Nations. Similarly, it’s mentioned in the Geneva Convention as a basic part of humane treatment. Of course, those international standards have little sway on the ground in any individual country. Either way, in the US, historically, prisoners have been able to both send and receive mail. It’s served as a way for prisoners to stay in contact with their families, pursue education, and to take care of matters with their legal counsel. The latter in particular is key, as prisoners have a right to confidential communication with their legal representatives.

Many prisoners study via correspondence. This is made more difficult by physical mail bans. Credit: California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, public domain

However, there has more recently been a push to end the traditional practice of prisoners receiving regular mail. The most typical reasoning put forth by authorities is that physical mail is a route for contraband to enter the prison, particularly where drugs are concerned. This is used as support for the idea of abandoning physical incoming mail. Instead, mail to prisoners is redirected to a third party service, where it is digitally scanned. Prisoners then access the mail via digital tablets or kiosks within the prison.

However, advocacy groups have questioned this rationale. Critics contend that most prison contraband actually enters corrections facilities via staff. It’s a reasonable assertion worthy of consideration. After all, ask any pen tester what’s easier – sneaking in small quantities of illicit materials by secreting them in mail, or simply putting contraband in the pockets of those with authorization to come and go at will.

There’s also the money factor to consider. Private organizations typically win the contracts to provide “digital mail” services to prisons. These organizations directly profit from the ban on physical mail, suggesting there’s reasons outside of prison safety that these measures may have been pursued.

As with any communications method involving a third party, it raises privacy concerns as well. Companies like Securus, that have bid on digital prison mail contracts, have demonstrated in the past a fast and loose attiude towards privacy. The organization, which also runs prison phone services, has previously been the subject of lawsuits for illegal recording of prisoner communications. In some cases, these calls were allegedly privileged communications between prisoners and their lawyers, that were then listened to by prosecutors involved in cases. Giving such third parties direct access and control over prisoner mail would open up a whole new communication channel to this kind of foul play. There’s also the potential for these third parties to scrape prisoner mail for all kinds of data that can be sold on the open market. 

There’s also something to be said for the value of real mail to the prisoners themselves. Often, they’re a class that is treated as if they have no rights, though it behooves us to remember that prisoners are human beings too. Indeed, if the idea of prison is to rehabilitate people and allow them to one day reenter society, it seems counterproductive to further restrict and control their contact with their support networks in the outside world.

Being able to hold a physical piece of mail from a child, partner, or loved one, can be an important piece of mental support for people living in what are, if we’re honest, some of the worst situations humans have dreamed up for each other. And, as any music enthusiast will tell you, there’s a big difference between the physical media and the experience of a digital copy. It’s difficult to see how restricting a prisoner’s communication to calls and screens could have much of a positive effect. It’s also worth noting that not everyone in prison or jail is even a convicted criminal. Often, people are thrown into these institutions to await trial, still innocent until they are proven guilty.

Nineteen states in the US have already enacted policies against physical mail. Prisons will state that the measures are cutting down on contraband, and the third parties collecting government money will back that up while cheering on improvements to efficiency. Meanwhile, more prisoners in the most incarceration-heavy country on Earth are finding themselves cut off from another channel of human connection.

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