Pennsylvania Digitizing Prisoner Mail

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[Censorship] [Pennsylvania] [ULK Issue 65]
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Pennsylvania Digitizing Prisoner Mail

Pennsylvania DOC has a new mail policy requiring all prisoner mail be sent to Florida, care of Smart Communications (SmartCom).(1) This company scans in all mail and forwards it to PADOC to be printed and delivered on site. No original mail will actually reach prisoners. Prisoners receiving greeting cards or photos are being given shrunk, black and white copies.

Some prisoners in Pennsylvania are circulating a request for legal help to fight this new practice. They list multiple concerns. These changes will dramatically impact the mail PA prisoners can receive including almost certainly denying them access to political books and magazines. SmartCom will keep scanned mail in a searchable database. This will likely be used to profile people who send mail to PA prisoners. Under the pretense of security concerns, this new policy is also about political control.

Prisons are allowed to restrict prisoners' First Amendment rights to free speech, but it is "only valid if it is reasonably related to ligitimate penological interests." (Turner v. Safely, 482 U.S. 78, 89 (1987)) In this situation, PADOC is citing incidents of "multiple staff members being sickened by unknown substances over the past few weeks." In September 2018, it says there were eight staff emergency room trips for drug exposure.(2) It is focusing on mail restrictions because "[i]t's speculated that the majority of contraband enters the facilities through the mail."

PADOC is building a lot of hype on its website about how drugs come in thru the mail and with visitors. Yet in its photographic report, "Examples of Drug Introduction into Facilities," not one example is given of staff bringing drugs in.(3) Anyone familiar with prison culture knows that prison staff are a likely source for smuggling. It's lucrative and relatively easy. PADOC's presentation of the situation is skewed. And according to its FAQ on the new procedures for how it's going to handle this alleged poisoning problem, no additional screening or testing for staff seems to be on the radar.

The new mail procedures imply that subscriptions for magazines and periodicals will continue direct to the prison: "For now, you will continue to receive issues of current subscriptions. If any issue is compromised, it will be confiscated and destroyed. No future subscription orders may be purchased except through the kiosk." The memo given to prisoners made it clear that all future subscriptions must be purchased through PADOC. PADOC will purchase subscriptions in bulk and have magazines shipped in bulk to the facility to deliver to prisoners. The DOC will set the cost and select the vendors.

As a part of this change, PA is banning anyone from sending any books in to prisoners.(4) "Inmates can make a request to purchase any book. The DOC will provide the inmate with the cost of the book. Once the inmate submits a cash slip for the book, the DOC will order the book and have it shipped to the inmate." No independent orders are allowed: "All publications must be purchased through DOC." Books sent any other way will be returned to sender. While outside folks can deposit money in prisoners' accounts so that they can purchase approved books from approved vendors, they will now have to pay 20% more than the cost of the book because that is deducted from incoming money to many prisoners' accounts as costs or restitution.

This is a ridiculous policy change, under the pretense of security. While an argument is being made that preventing all physical mail from entering facilities will cut down contraband, it is an unnecessary obstruction to First Amendment rights of prisoners. The impact on prisoners, whose contact with the outside world is mainly through the mail, will be dramatic. Mail delays will likely increase, but more importantly, many will no longer have access to education. Cutting off books and magazines, limiting people to only content that is pre-approved by the prison, means that organizations like MIM(Prisons) will no longer be able to send literature to prisoners in PA.

This new policy is only serving to impose greater control and isolation on prisoners in PA. The results of cutting prisoners off from outside contact, and denying them educational materials, will just increase the already high recidivism and likely fuel more conflict behind the bars. This is what the prison wants: keeping prisoners fighting one another rather than educating themselves, building ties to the community, and building opposition to the criminal injustice system.

Notes:
1. FAQ New Procedures, PADOC. https://www.cor.pa.gov/Initiatives/Pages/FAQ-New-Procedures.aspx
2. Drug Interdiction Indicators, PADOC. https://www.cor.pa.gov/Initiatives/Documents/Drug-Interdiction-Indicators.pdf
3. Examples of Drug Introduction Into Facilities, PADOC. https://www.cor.pa.gov/Initiatives/Documents/PA%20DOC%20Drug%20Finds.pdf
4. In September, it appeared PADOC was going to force all prisoners to only acquire books via e-readers. There was much public outcry against this policy, and as of 1 November 2018, it appears PADOC's primary tactic regarding books will be to have them all sent through a processing center in Bellefonte, PA.
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