[Pnews] Federal Prisons’ Switch to Scanning Mail Is a Surveillance Nightmare

Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Sun Sep 26 12:01:36 EDT 2021


  Federal Prisons’ Switch to Scanning Mail Is a Surveillance Nightmare

Lauren Gill <https://theintercept.com/staff/lauren-gill/>- September 26 

_In a Pennsylvania_ federal prison, Joe used to trace his girlfriend’s 
handwriting with his finger as the faint smell of her perfume wafted 
into his cell. Her letters elicited rare feelings of intimacy in an 
otherwise cold environment. But after his facility, United States 
Penitentiary Canaan, replaced physical mail with photocopies in 2019, 
those feelings have disappeared.

“It’s just like receiving a fake dollar bill,” Joe told The Intercept in 
an email through a prison communications system. The Intercept is using 
a pseudonym because Joe fears retaliation from prison staff.

Over the past two years, dozens of facilities across the Federal Bureau 
of Prisons, or BOP, which oversees approximately 156,000 people and 122 
facilities, have adopted policies of photocopying mail and withholding 
the originals from their recipients. Prison officials say the change is 
an effort to stop drugs that are entering facilities by being sprayed on 
mail, which officials claim is affecting staff, though there is scant 
evidence of this phenomenon.

USP Canaan is one of 33 federal facilities in 18 states using prison 
staff to scan mail in-house, according to an informal survey of 
incarcerated people’s loved ones conducted by The Intercept. And the 
Pennsylvania prison was one of two BOP facilities that participated in a 
recent pilot program to outsource the scanning of mail to a private 
company. BOP union heads told The Intercept that they are pushing for 
the bureau to enroll all of its facilities in the private service, known 
as MailGuard, whose creators boast that it can “gain huge secret 
intelligence into the public sender of postal mail.”

The BOP did not respond to The Intercept’s questions about plans to 
expand MailGuard or details of prisons scanning mail in-house, though a 
spokesperson told Slate 
in August that the bureau is “considering the expansion of mail scanning 
pending funding.”

Advocates for incarcerated people warn that MailGuard, which is also 
being used in county jails and state prisons, is chilling communications 
between incarcerated people and their loved ones. “It’s surveillance on 
a scale that we haven’t really seen before in prisons,” said Quinn 
Cozzens, an attorney with the Abolitionist Law Center, which sued 
the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections over its use of the service 
for legal mail.

    “You are potentially creating a record that lives on far longer than
    the amount of time that that letter is in the scanner.”

Postal mail was the last means of communication that was not heavily 
monitored by the BOP. The bureau’s transition to mail scanning, coupled 
with its refusal to release details of the program’s operations to the 
public, presents novel privacy concerns for incarcerated people and the 
people who send them mail.

The Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University has sued 
<https://knightcolumbia.org/documents/bcug8y41jp> the BOP in an effort 
to publicize some of those details, such as its record retention policy 
and rates of drug introduction through the mail.

Stephanie Krent, an attorney with the Knight First Amendment Institute, 
said the programs’ retention policies will be key to understanding the 
scope of the surveillance. “The overarching problem is the same, which 
is that instead of looking at a letter quickly, to determine whether or 
not anything in the letter could pose a safety threat,” Krent said, “you 
are potentially creating a record that lives on far longer than the 
amount of time that that letter is in the scanner.”

_Prison mail has_ long been subject to inspection, albeit through an 
analog process. Before scanning, staff in the prison mailroom were 
responsible for opening and browsing the mail for contraband or 
inappropriate communications. Mail that passed this test was then 
distributed to its recipient. An exception was made for privileged 
communications, such as legal mail, which were supposed to only be 
opened in the presence of its recipient 

Federal prisons in Illinois, South Dakota, Pennsylvania, Alabama, North 
Carolina, Kentucky, California, Georgia, Texas, Minnesota, Mississippi, 
Colorado, West Virginia, Virginia, Florida, Tennessee, New York, and New 
Jersey are now scanning mail in-house, The Intercept found. This list is 
not exhaustive, and the BOP did not answer questions about the numbers 
and locations of facilities using scanning.

Some have been scanning mail for more than a year, while others have 
changed their policies over the last few weeks. At those prisons, two to 
four mailroom staff open the mail then digitally scan it, making 
photocopies to deliver to incarcerated people, according to Jose Rojas, 
the southeast regional vice president for Council of Prison Locals C-33, 
the union that represents federal corrections officers. It is unclear 
whether the BOP stores digital copies of the mail scans in a database.

While the workload in the mailrooms has increased, staffing has not, 
Rojas said. Causing further delays with scanning, he said, mailroom 
staff are sometimes reassigned to the housing units under the BOP’s 
practice of augmentation 
that requires staff such as nurses and cooks to step in as corrections 
officers when staffing shortages arise.

Several incarcerated people told The Intercept that their legal mail has 
been opened, and sometimes copied, before it reaches them.

The shift to scanning has resulted in extended wait times for mail 
delivery, and once it is delivered, the scans can be hard to read, said 
incarcerated people and their loved ones. Photos and cards appear 
blurred, pages go missing, and parts of the letters get cut off, they 
said. Joe shared a photocopy of a letter he received with The Intercept 
that had been clipped on the margin during the scanning process, making 
some words illegible.

Joe’s girlfriend, who asked not to be named because she fears 
retaliation from prison staff, said she writes to him daily. It used to 
be one of their most reliable means of communication, especially with 
visits suspended during the Covid-19 pandemic and long lines to use 
phones inside the prison. Now, she said, she sometimes doesn’t receive 
his letters for a week. “You’re left wondering, ‘Is he safe? Is he in 
quarantine because of corona?’ It’s very nerve-wracking,” she said.

Lynn Espejo, a formerly incarcerated leader of the advocacy group Inside 
the Walls and Beyond, said she’s heard stories about women not receiving 
Christmas cards until March because of delays at facilities doing 
scanning. “It’s confusing to me why they think this is good,” she said.

Illustration of hands try to reach letters through prison bars.

Illustration: Dilek Baykara

_In February 2020_, the Bureau of Prisons issued a request for 
on mail scanning services aimed to “reduce costs, streamline BOP 
operations, eliminate contraband and provide a whole new field of 
valuable investigative intelligence not currently available.” The 
ability to retain a “searchable database for each registered sender and 
all correspondence received” and to store all hard copies of mail for at 
least 45 days were among the services the BOP sought.

The following month, the bureau enlisted the services of Smart 
Communications, a Florida-based prison communications company, to do the 
job. Two prisons, USP Canaan and Federal Correctional Institution 
Beckley in West Virginia, piloted its MailGuard program from March 2020 
to June this year. In practice, this involved people sending mail to 
Smart Communications’ offices in Florida, where civilian staffers 
scanned the mail then sent photocopies to the prisons.

What little is known about the service comes from Smart Communications’ 
proposals to other correctional systems. Roughly 100 prisons and jails 
across the country use MailGuard, including the Pennsylvania Department 
of Corrections, according to a proposal 
to the Massachusetts Department of Corrections last year obtained by The 
Intercept under the Freedom of Information Act. Records show that MADOC 
officials signed a yearlong contract 
with Smart Communications in October 2020 then terminated 
it in May. It is unclear why MADOC ended the contract early; reached for 
comment, an agency spokesperson did not respond to questions about it. 
Smart Communications did not respond to requests for comment or a list 
of questions from The Intercept.

The proposal outlines various services the company can offer, including 
a review process that allows authorized people to access digitized 
scanned copies of mail and information on each sender through a 
database. Smart Communications says this data can be useful to 
investigators, who have the option to receive “real time text or email 
alerts and be instantly sent a copy when an inmate receives mail.” For 
legal mail, the company offers a machine for use within prisons where 
individuals can open and scan their mail in the presence of prison staff.

MailGuard takes surveillance a step further with its “Smart Tracker” 
system that not only allows senders to track the status of their mail, 
but also for corrections agencies to “gain huge secret intelligence into 
the public sender.” This includes people’s email address, home address, 
IP address, GPS location tracking, the names of devices used to access 
Smart Tracker, and any other accounts they use, according to the 
proposal. MailGuards creators say the system will store a list of all 
incarcerated people the sender has communicated with and save all of 
their mail in a profile for up to seven years after their release.

The company has indicated the timeline could be even longer. “To be 
honest [in] almost 10 years of business Smart Communications has never 
lost or deleted records or any data from our database. There are 
hundreds of millions of data records stored for investigators at 
anytime,” Smart Communications CEO Jon Logan told 
Mother Jones.

Corrections departments can choose whether they want to install kiosks 
and distribute tablets to go completely paperless or to administer the 
mail through photocopies. Electronic communications to and from people 
in prison are monitored in a similar way as MailGuard, but according to 
Krent, of Knight First Amendment Institute, “the bigger problem is that 
programs like MailGuard force writers to leave a lasting digital 
footprint of their words, even if they opted to send physical mail 
because they preferred greater privacy.”

    The company said it would foot the bill for legal costs associated
    with lawsuits over the introduction of the service by advocates.

In its proposal to MADOC, Smart Communications said the price tag for 
five years of the services throughout 16 facilities would cost $8.11 
million. The company also told the agency that it would foot the bill 
for legal costs associated with lawsuits over the introduction of the 
service by advocates, a document 
obtained by The Intercept shows. The size of the company’s contract for 
the pilot program with the BOP is unclear, but one union leader from 
Pennsylvania, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he is not 
authorized to speak to the media, said he’s heard that it would cost 
around $50 million to expand throughout the bureau.

He, and other BOP union heads, lauded the service and said that they are 
pushing the Biden administration to allocate funding for its expansion. 
“We really pushed back against the agency to keep it going and the 
agency just stated they had no money for it,” said the Pennsylvania 
union representative. They said they are working closely with Rep. Matt 
Cartwright, D-Pa., who is chair of the House Committee on Appropriations 
for Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies. Cartwright and 
Rep. Jerrold Nadler, who is the head of the House Judiciary Committee, 
which oversees the BOP, did not return a request for comment from The 
Intercept on the program.

_Corrections officers have_ described mail scanning as essential to 
stopping drugs from entering prisons and jails, but data is scarce, and 
the evidence that exists belies those claims. Despite MailGuard’s 
promise to stop contraband from entering facilities, drug positivity 
rates in Pennsylvania prisons increased after the service was 
The American Prospect. There have been numerous 
reports confirming 
corrections officers 
are the primary source of drugs and other contraband in prisons and 
jails — a trend that was identified 
<https://oig.justice.gov/reports/BOP/e0302/exec.htm> by the Justice 
Department as far back as 2003.

Rojas, the southeast union head, said some prison staff have gone to the 
hospital with headaches and increased heartbeats, after they thought 
they were affected by drugs sent in through letters and books. K2, a 
synthetic cannabinoid, had become a primary concern after staff thought 
they inhaled it while sorting mail. “It’s tough, it goes into your 
lungs,” said Rojas.

There is no publicly available data on drug positivity rates for BOP 
prisons, and BOP did not respond to questions about those figures or its 
methods for testing mail suspected to contain drugs. Dr. Ryan Marino, 
medical director of toxicology and addiction at the University Hospitals 
Cleveland Medical Center, challenged assertions that mail staff were 
absorbing K2 through their skin or by inhaling it. “You would need to 
smoke it to inhale it afterwards,” he said. “These compounds don’t just 
get into the air and don’t just cause effects at room temperature from 
touching them, which is why people don’t do drugs that way.”

What is indisputable is that the introduction of scanned mail has made 
incarcerated people and their loved ones uneasy. Some have stopped 
sending certain types of mail, like pictures, altogether. “It makes me 
uncomfortable because it’s a violation of my privacy,” Sharon, who has a 
loved one incarcerated at a federal prison using mail scanning, told The 
Intercept. (She asked to be referred to only by her first name because 
she feared retaliation.) “I understand that they are in prison, and I’m 
sure the mail gets scanned or read at some point to make sure that no 
crime is being committed but to know that my letters are sitting there 
with my personal private information — you don’t know what the 
corrections officers are doing with it.”

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