[Pnews] Paper Mail Still Matters to People Behind Bars

Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Thu Oct 11 10:40:10 EDT 2018


  Paper Mail Still Matters to People Behind Bars

By Victoria Law - October 8, 2018

*Pennsylvania’s prisons have started digitizing letters, to prisoners’ 
chagrin. *

October 8, 2018, 3:00 AM PDT

Mail call on Thursday, Sept. 13, was different from any other in Sheena 
King’s 26 years behind bars. As usual, the unit officer came to her 
door. But instead of handing her an envelope with a letter inside, he 
handed her four photocopied pages stapled together. “The first page is a 
copy of the front of your envelope,” King wrote in response to emailed 
questions from /Bloomberg Businessweek/. “The second is a copy of the 
back. The third page is blank and appears to be a copy of the back of 
your letter. The last page is the actual letter.”

A sample of King’s photocopied mail.

Source: Sheena King

On Sept. 5, Pennsylvania became the first state in the U.S. to eliminate 
personal mail in its prison system. The policy means that its prisoners 
can no longer receive birthday cards, handwritten notes from Grandma, or 
drawings from their children. Instead, their families send mail to the 
offices of Smart Communications U.S. Inc. 
<https://smartcommunications.us/> in St. Petersburg, Fla., where, says 
Chief Executive Officer Jon Logan, employees inspect each piece of 
correspondence before converting it into a searchable electronic 
document. The company sends the digital files to the Pennsylvania 
Department of Corrections <https://www.cor.pa.gov/Pages/default.aspx>, 
where prison officials can review the contents before delivering them as 
black-and-white printouts to their intended recipients. Each piece of 
correspondence becomes part of a searchable database, guaranteeing 
prison officials perpetual access, even years after the recipients have 
been released.

Prisons throughout the U.S. have tightened restrictions on what can and 
can’t be sent through the mail, to combat the flow of drugs from the 
outside world to incarcerated individuals. Some states have banned 
colorful envelopes, greeting cards, and even computer printouts. But 
Pennsylvania’s prison system is the first to fully eliminate personal mail.

Started in 2009, Smart Communications provides technology to 
correctional systems, including e-messaging, a limited form of email 
that King uses, and video visiting, a teleconferencing system that some 
prisons have adopted in place of in-person visits. In 2016, Smart 
Communications unveiled its MailGuard system, touting it as the first 
system to fully eliminate postal mail in jails.

Today, Logan estimates that of the 100-plus state correctional agencies 
and county facilities that contract with Smart Communications, about 
half use MailGuard, and he’s in discussions with at least a half-dozen 
more. To accommodate the increased mail volume, the company recently 
bought a 20,000-square-foot warehouse and added 40 employees. Logan 
wouldn’t comment on the company’s finances, but a copy of the contract 
obtained by /Bloomberg Businessweek/ shows that the Pennsylvania 
Department of Corrections has agreed to pay Smart Communications 
$376,000 per month for its services through July 2021.

Prison spending has ballooned since the mid-1980s, when the incarcerated 
population was less than a third of what it is today. Overflows in 
state-run facilities led to contracts with private companies, which 
provide services such as food, telephone, and medical care, sometimes 
sacrificing prisoner comfort and safety for cost efficiencies. According 
to the Corrections Accountability Project at the Urban Justice Center, 
more than half of the $80 billion spent annually on incarceration flows 
to private companies 

Bianca Tylek, director of the Corrections Accountability Project, calls 
digitized mail services a “tremendous growth opportunity” for private 
companies seeking to contract with prison and jail systems. Using 
Pennsylvania’s 27 prisons and almost 48,000 prisoners as a gauge, Tylek 
estimates the nationwide market for mail processing could be more than 
$180 million annually. She also cautions, “Because it’s early in the 
game, Pennsylvania is probably getting a better deal.”

For King, who’s been in prison since the age of 18 for a murder she says 
she was pressured into committing, mail has been her lifeline. “Most of 
our families are a great distance, and phone calls keep us connected, 
but when your 15 minutes are over, that letter or card is what keeps you 
grounded,” she wrote. “When I hold a letter from my children, my mother, 
my niece, or my man, there is a connectedness that I feel just seeing 
their handwriting. I won’t feel that with a lightly photocopied version. 
What color was it? What kind of design was it? You can’t tell, because 
it’s faded.”

BOTTOM LINE - With prisons struggling to stem the flow of drugs to 
prisoners, the market for mail digitizing services is only likely to grow.

Freedom Archives 522 Valencia Street San Francisco, CA 94110 415 
863.9977 https://freedomarchives.org/
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