[Pnews] Prison Mail Surveillance Company Keeps Tabs On Those On the Outside, Too

Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Fri Mar 26 10:46:47 EDT 2021

Mail Surveillance Company Keeps Tabs On Those On the Outside, Too
by Aaron Gordon <https://www.vice.com/en/contributor/aaron-gordon>
 - March 24, 2021

In March 2018, the Virginia Department of Corrections (VA DOC) was trying
to gain more control over the mail its approximately 30,000 incarcerated
people received. Mainly, it wanted to close a loophole in which people
posed as businesses so they could include color photos. A contact at the
Pennsylvania Department of Corrections recommended they talk to a Florida
company called Smart Communications about its product, MailGuard.

Smart Communications offered to do a whole lot more than that. It offered
VA DOC a suite of products that would make it possible for prison officials
to monitor and search all inmate communications with the outside world. It
would create a searchable database of everything each prisoner said and
received, along with who said it. And, the company claimed, it would
include postal mail in this dragnet through its MailGuard product, by
scanning each mail item at a remote facility and uploading PDFs for
incarcerated people to view from a tablet. The people in prisons would
never receive the physical letter.

The MailGuard system works by having senders address their mail not to the
prison, but to a PO box rented by Smart Communications. For state DOCs, the
company offers to set up a mail receiving facility in the state, and then
ship the mail to its Florida facility for processing. There, the mail is
opened, scanned, and uploaded. According to the proposal, inmates would
then log into a kiosk to view the PDFs of their mail remotely. After 30
days, the mail is destroyed. There is no way for incarcerated people to
ever physically hold or recover their mail.

And, the company said, it would not only track incarcerated people inside
the walls, but their friends, family, and anyone who sent mail to them, too.

"Investigators will have access to the postal mail sender’s Email address,
physical address, IP Address, mobile cell number, GEO GPS location
tracking, exact devices used when accessing system [sic], any related
accounts the sender may also make or use," Smart Communications said in a
proposal for VA DOC. The proposal and other documents were obtained through
a public records request.

Motherboard is posting the proposal, which was created specifically for the
VA DOC, because it shows how a private company proposed a complex
surveillance system that would keep tabs not just on incarcerated people
but also on the people who sent mail to them, even if they were not
suspected of a crime.

This system, Smart Communications boasted, "eliminates anonymity of postal
mail, now postal mail has a digital fingerprint with new intelligence." And
this intelligence could be used to crack down on "gang members."

When Motherboard asked Smart Communications for comment on this article, a
lawyer for the company demanded that we not publish any of the documents,
which were obtained using freedom of information laws that journalists
regularly use to procure public documents about how taxpayer money is being
spent and the general dealings of a democratic government.

"I understand you have obtained information relating to a confidential
proposal that Smart Communications previously made to the Commonwealth of
Virginia Department of Corrections. Please be advised that this proposal
and the information therein was provided pursuant to a confidentiality
understanding / NDA and was clearly and prominently designated as
CONFIDENTIAL, PROPRIETARY, and TRADE SECRET," David Gann, general counsel
with Smart Communications wrote in an email. "It should never have been
shared with you or anyone else by the recipient. We will deal with that
issue separately, but regardless, Smart Communications demands that you,
Vice Media, Motherboard, and any other affiliated companies or entities
immediately cease and desist all efforts to further disseminate or
distribute any information obtained in that confidential proposal. Smart
Communications further demands that you immediately destroy all copies of
its proposal."

In its FOI response, the VA DOC claimed that it did not have any
nondisclosure agreement with Smart Communications. The documents obtained
as part of this request were automatically made available through Muckrock
the nonprofit platform Motherboard used to file the request on. Motherboard
has redacted some inmate personal information and personal contact
information for Smart Communications executives.

"Smart Communications takes the protection of its intellectual property and
confidential / trade secret information very seriously, and it will pursue
all violations to the fullest extent of the law," Gann continued. "Please
immediately confirm receipt of this email, that you will not further
violate Smart Communications' intellectual property rights by publishing
any aspect of its confidential proposal, and that you have destroyed all
copies of Smart Communications' confidential material."

The proposal, which VA DOC did not ultimately pursue, does not explain in
detail how Smart Communications' platform works, it generally lists its
capabilities and prices. VA DOC opted to spend about $7 million a year on
an in-house solution of photocopying and shredding all mail
before delivering the copied version to people in prison. But Pennsylvania
did sign a contract with Smart Communications, through an emergency
procurement process
due to a controversial and contested claim
of a surge in mail being laced with synthetic marijuana.

The rollout was "a mess," according to Quinn Cozzens, staff attorney at the
Pittsburgh-based Abolitionist Law Center, a public interest law firm.

"Mail was delayed for weeks or months and was regularly delivered to the
wrong person. Color photos were scanned and delivered in black and white,
often with portions of the picture cut off. They rejected mail and returned
it to the sender without explanation for why it was rejected." Plus, the
promised kiosks never materialized, as PA DOC staff printed out the PDFs on
copy paper and handed them to incarcerated people just like VA DOC does.

While Pennsylvania's deal with Smart Communications was widely reported
at the time, the extent of the company's capability to track people not in
prison has not been previously known.

"Smart Communications has been boasting of their dystopian surveillance
system at least since they were awarded a contract by the Pennsylvania
Department of Corrections in 2018," said Cozzens. "Smart Communications’
total surveillance of every aspect of communications with incarcerated
people is a chilling convergence of the expansion and privatization of the
surveillance state on one hand, and a growing private industry that profits
from holding human beings in cages on the other."

The extent of Smart Communications' reach across the U.S. mass
incarceration landscape is not yet known. In communications with the
Nebraska Department of Corrections in October 2018, which Motherboard also
obtained via a public records request, a company representative boasted of
its contract with Pennsylvania and claimed to be "under contract
negotiations with Virginia, Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee, Maryland,
Utah, and Florida!"

At least in Virginia's case, this was a bit of an exaggeration, as Virginia
received a proposal but never pursued it. The majority of the company's
clients appear to be regional and county prisons.

Screenshot: Virginia Department of Corrections documents

"Written correspondence is one of the most, if not the most, important
means for incarcerated people to maintain connections with family and loved
ones outside of prison," Cozzens said. "Smart Communications prevents
incarcerated people from ever holding a drawing sent to them by their
child, or an original photograph, or a handwritten letter from a loved one
that hasn’t been scanned and reprinted on a sheet of copier paper."

In the proposal, Smart Communications estimated it would pocket $1.8
million in profits over a five-year period through payments from VA DOC for
equipment and maintenance. At least in PA DOC's case, incarcerated people
do not have to pay to access their mail, although Smart Communications told
VA DOC that if it opted for its digital communications suite, people
sending messages to people in prisons would have to pay 50 cents a message
or $1 a photo.

Smart Communications offered VA DOC a system to monitor, approve, and
potentially reject mail using a "management console" giving them "instant
access to the entire VADOC database of inmate mail." Investigators can
receive real-time alerts via text or email when an inmate marked as a gang
member or otherwise flagged receives an item of mail.

Letters can be approved or rejected by DOC staff. Screenshot: Virginia Dept
of Corrections

The company further offered VA DOC the "Smart Tracker" system, the one that
tracks the people who send incarcerated people mail. The proposal doesn't
detail how the system works, but it appears to use the data people input to
create an account through the "Smart Jail Mail" portal to connect them to
the letters they send. The company retains all digital copies of mail for
seven years, meaning if the system is used in enough prison systems, over
time it could generate a considerable database about who associates with

This creates real privacy concerns for people whose only "crime" is trying
to communicate with someone in prison, says Aaron Mackey, a staff attorney
at the Electronic Frontier Foundation who has worked on prisoner privacy

"People who communicate with prisoners are now going to have reduced
autonomy, privacy and expression and associational rights," Mackey said,
"because now, wholly innocent individuals who are trying to just
communicate with family and loved ones, members of their community and so
on, are now going to be caught up in this surveillance." Even institutions
like social service organizations and religious leaders will be caught up
in the dragnet, Mackey warned, potentially getting flagged as troublesome
figures because they communicate with people in prisons.

But the most significant issue, both Mackey and Cozzens say, is the
emotional toll not receiving physical mail takes on incarcerated people.
Even before the pandemic, many prisons have gradually shifted to encourage
mostly digital interactions through video visitation and similar efforts
Physical mail was a key link between people in prison and their support
networks. That link is being cut.

To be sure, people in prison do not have a reasonable expectation of
privacy even for physical mail. Prior to the Smart Communications contract,
all postal mail in Pennsylvania state prisons was opened and physically
inspected for contraband by prison staff and skimmed for contents, Cozzens
said. But it was rarely scanned and preserved. Once the initial inspection
was complete, the mail was delivered to the person it was addressed to.

Cozzens sees a huge difference between that approach and what Smart
Communications is doing. "There is quite a difference between a prison
guard potentially skimming over a letter one time before delivering it, and
every person who sends mail to an incarcerated person having their letters
scanned, rendered digitally searchable, stored for seven years, and on top
of that their personal information is also stored and meticulously
tracked." He compared it to police agencies merely writing down a license
plate when they pull someone over versus deploying license plate readers on
a mass scale

"This is just another step down that road," Mackey said, "where prisoners
increasingly have diminished rights and privacy."
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