More and More Prisons Are Banning Mail

For people who are incarcerated, a letter or photograph from home goes a long way. But more jails and prisons are introducing cruel policies that mean people in those facilities never get them.
Nazish Dholakia Senior Writer
Mar 01, 2022
Illustration by Gloria Mendoza

After the 4:00 p.m. count every weekday, Monday through Friday, was mail call.

“There’s something about that mail coming through the slot and hearing your name get called that reminds you how valued you are. It was something I could take with me when I moved from facility to facility,” said Marcus Bullock, who was incarcerated for eight years from the age of 15. “It didn’t matter where I went, those photos would end up on the side of my bunk.”

The letters and photos from family and friends that Bullock received while incarcerated helped him not only while he was in prison, but also when he went home. Today, he is the founder and CEO of Flikshop, an app that makes it easier for people to stay connected to incarcerated family members and friends. Users can send personalized postcards, with a photo and a message, to people in jails and prisons across the United States.

Behind bars, costs for phone calls, video calls, and emails add up quickly. Physical mail has generally been the most accessible form of communication for people who are incarcerated and their loved ones. For people in prison, those messages are a lifeline to the outside world. Maintaining personal connections eases their stress and anxiety and increases their chances of success after release.

But increasingly, departments of corrections are creating rules that obstruct mail correspondence—despite research that clearly demonstrates the impact that letters, photos, and cards can have for those behind bars.

More facilities have implemented bans on mail in recent years, including many in the last few months alone. In January, the Florida Department of Corrections (FDC) adopted new restrictions on how the estimated 80,000 people incarcerated in its state prisons can receive mail. Incoming mail—including handwritten letters, cards, and photos, but excluding legal mail—will be digitized by JPay, a for-profit contractor that provides communication services to Florida’s prisons and jails. People in prison will only be able to view the scanned version on their personal tablets or at communal kiosks. They won’t get the originals, but they can request to have scans printed for them for a fee: $0.10 per page for black-and-white copies, $1 per page for color. Those charges are exorbitant for people who make pennies per hour and must also pay out of pocket for things like overpriced soap and doctor’s visits.

This means that people in Florida prisons won’t be able to run their fingers over the picture their child drew for them. They won’t be able to hold the handwritten letter sent by their mom. They won’t be able to receive postage stamps from friends and family, making it more difficult for them to write back.

“For us, for my husband personally, physical pictures are what keep him motivated. They are what keep him going day to day,” Tatiana Sparks, whose husband is incarcerated, told FDC officials during a hearing about the rule. “Having a physical picture or having a physical card cannot compare to a scanned version that is printed from the kiosk.”

New Mexico banned physical mail in prisons in February and has contracted with prison communications firm, Securus, to deliver copies to recipients. In North Carolina, senders must now use an app from the contractor TextBehind to draft letters or create digital cards and drawings. Fees start at $0.49 and increase with every photo or drawing. Alternatively, people can send mail to TextBehind’s Maryland facility, where TextBehind will scan it and deliver a digital copy to the recipient. The original will be shredded unless the sender pays a $2.50 return fee.

The Federal Bureau of Prisons in 2020 piloted—and later paused—Smart Communication’s MailGuard service, which scans incarcerated people’s mail and then delivers printed or digital copies. Pennsylvania’s Department of Corrections was among the first to restrict traditional physical mail, in 2018. People who are incarcerated in Pennsylvania only receive scanned copies of mail—letters that, on occasion, are missing pages and blurry, darkened photos in which faces are indistinguishable silhouettes.

Family members have said that mail is often scanned incorrectly, delayed, or lost; that tablets frequently malfunction and repairs take weeks; and that additional and hidden fees only add to the financial burdens they face. There are privacy concerns too, as these mail digitization systems subject both senders and recipients to heightened surveillance.

Bullock regularly gets emails from people concerned about these policies sweeping through their states. He thinks not only about the impact that mail restrictions have on families, but also on potential opportunities to connect with prospective employers who are trying to be intentional about their hiring practices.

“This is ex-ing out all of those opportunities for so many different people,” Bullock said.

Ostensibly, these rule changes are meant to prevent contraband from entering prisons—though there’s little evidence to support this invasive approach, which amounts to collective punishment. In Florida, for example, of the 3.1 million contraband items that entered the prison system from January 2019 to April 2021, only about 1 percent came in through mail. Texas prisons stopped in-person visits and limited mail, but that didn’t stop drugs from getting in. Reports confirm that most often, it’s staff—not “drug-soaked papers”—that bring contraband into facilities.

With no evidence that these bans improve security, it’s only the for-profit contractors that stand to benefit from these arrangements. There’s little transparency around just how many facilities have implemented policies that prohibit incarcerated people from receiving their original mail. But Smart Communications alone has sold its MailGuard service to roughly 100 jails and prisons across the country.

What is clear is that jails, prisons, and departments of corrections must abandon these restrictions on mail correspondence. For people with limited connections to the outside world, physical mail is cherished. Instead of creating obstacles in the name of “security”—a suspect motive—state agencies need to enable people in prison to preserve and strengthen bonds with loved ones and others on the outside. Those ties play a massive role in helping people succeed when they go home.