Ever since his daughter first discovered to make use of a pen, Joseph Onzik has seemed ahead to her letters. He reads them from a cell in a state jail in Pennsylvania, the place he’s been locked up for about 5 years, since she was three. “I ask her to write me as much as possible,” he says. It “has advanced from scribble to cursive writing like magic as the time passes by.” Typically she calls to let him know what colour pen she’ll use for the subsequent one: “at eight years old, it is quite hard for her to keep a secret about the little things in life.”
However this ritual modified in September, when Pennsylvania’s Division of Corrections introduced that as a result of some letters had been soaked with liquid medicine, inmates in state lockups would not obtain mail immediately from associates and relations. Now their mail goes to Sensible Communications, an organization in Florida that scans the letters and shops them electronically. At mail name, inmates obtain printout copies quite than the originals.
“I find this new photocopying of my beloved mail heartbreaking to say the least,” one prisoner stated.
With the brand new change, prisoners say the letters now really feel much less private, and scanned pictures are typically unattainable to make out. Families even have privateness considerations about an organization dealing with their correspondence. In current interviews with Mother Jones, the Division of Corrections and Sensible Communications appeared to disagree on how lengthy digital copies of their letters can be saved in a database that could possibly be utilized by regulation enforcement for investigative functions. The corporate stated it will maintain onto the copies for a few years longer than state officers prompt.
Because the winter holidays strategy, prisoners are lacking the handwritten letters they as soon as acquired. Some complain of mishaps like misplaced pages and lengthy delays. Others say the printouts are of such poor high quality that letters are troublesome to learn. When photographs arrive—typically gotten smaller to suit a number of on a web page—they are often so distorted that faces are onerous to differentiate. And on the finish of the day, a printed copy of a card simply doesn’t really feel the identical as the actual factor. “Please remember this is the only method and way to watch her progress and grow in life during the best years of her development,” Onzik stated of his daughter’s letters in a message despatched to an advocacy group in October and shared with Mother Jones. “I find this new photocopying of my beloved mail heartbreaking to say the least.” One other inmate received married two days earlier than prisons stopped processing mail instantly; when his spouse despatched him their marriage license, in response to the Philadelphia Inquirer, it arrived as a double-sided photocopy.
Corrections officers say the brand new coverage was a response to drastic circumstances. The month earlier than it was introduced, an uncommon variety of inmates had overdosed on medicine. Dozens of jail staffers additionally turned sick after dealing with prisoners’ mail or property—tingling arms, complications, and dizziness—and many have been hospitalized. The corrections division attributed the issue to artificial cannabinoids like K2, that are potent and exhausting to detect when soaked into paper. In response, the state’s 25 prisons went on lockdown and rolled out a collection of restrictions: They briefly banned volunteer teams from sending free books to inmates, put in physique scanners, and put a 90-day moratorium on vending-machine purchases in visitation areas to make sure that medicine wouldn’t be slipped into chip luggage and handed alongside. Most mail can be digitized by the corporate in Florida, whereas authorized correspondence can be photocopied onsite by jail staffers, who would briefly hold the unique paperwork and hand over duplicates to inmates. (The American Civil Liberties Union is now suing over this dealing with of authorized mail, arguing it violates attorney-client privilege.)
Relations upset concerning the modifications have questioned whether or not the restrictions are misdirected, noting that guards typically sneak contraband into correctional amenities. And a few toxicologists have forged doubt on whether or not inmate mail was actually sickening jail staffers within the first place, suggesting that their signs might have been psychosomatic, the results of nervousness about drug publicity versus precise publicity. However inside a month of implementing the brand new mail insurance policies, the Division of Corrections says, drug finds in Pennsylvania state prisons dropped almost in half. Different state corrections techniques started calling to precise curiosity within the new safety protocols, in accordance with a division spokeswoman.
Nonetheless, advocates fear jail officers aren’t contemplating the complete impression on inmates. Writing letters is likely one of the hottest methods for them to remain in contact with kinfolk, partially due to the hefty price ticket for telephone calls. And research present that those that keep ties with their household are extra profitable after their launch. “It’s not like the intentions are bad, so we want to make sure people understand what the cost is to families,” says Kevin Ring, who hung out in a federal jail in Maryland in 2014 for his half in a lobbying scandal and now leads the advocacy group FAMM, which collected messages from Pennsylvania inmates like Onzik who’re upset concerning the mail coverage. Throughout his incarceration, Ring stored colour photographs of his daughters in his locker to spice up his morale. “That mattered. To get some grainy copy of a picture is not the same,” he says.
Research present that those that keep ties with their household are extra profitable after their launch.
Pennsylvania isn’t the primary state to ban junk mail to inmates. In Arkansas and Virginia, state prisons started photocopying letters final yr, additionally to stem the circulate of medicine inside. However Pennsylvania’s corrections division is reportedly the primary to outsource its mail processing to an organization that shops inmate correspondence in a database. And it’ll doubtless not be the final. Sensible Communications already works with dozens of lower-level businesses like counties that run jails; it’s now in talks with about half a dozen different state corrections departments about its providers, based on CEO Jon Logan, who notes that income has doubled virtually yearly because the firm launched in 2009. It has three patents pending on its mail know-how. “I expect it to be the standard in corrections going forth,” he says. The contract with Pennsylvania is value $376,000 a month, or almost $16 million over three years.
The corporate says it might course of mail extra effectively and safely than correctional staffers as a result of its staff have particular gear to keep away from contact with medicine. And it says its technique of storing digital copies of letters might be helpful for investigative functions. “If there is gang activity, secret communications about an escape or drugs in the community—now all communications are being documented, so the investigators can look at it even after it’s been delivered to the inmate,” says Logan.
Amy Worden, a spokeswoman for the Division of Corrections, advised Mother Jones that Sensible Communications would retailer the unique letters and digital copies for 45 days, a timeline that’s additionally outlined in an FAQ on the division’s web site. However Logan informed Mother Jones that his firm would maintain onto digital copies of Pennsylvania mail for much longer—for at the very least seven years after a prisoner is freed, he advised me. “That is correct. 7 years from the time the inmate has been released,” he reiterated in an e mail later once I acquired in contact to double-check how lengthy Pennsylvania mail can be saved, noting that different time frames had been reported. “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.”
Pennsylvania’s corrections division is reportedly the primary to outsource its mail processing to an organization that shops inmate letters and pictures in a database.
Some inmates aren’t taking any possibilities. “I won’t send any pictures to him that have faces of our children, our grandchildren,” says Dana Cooper, whose husband is incarcerated at SCI Phoenix in Pennsylvania. “He wants no family faces saved in that database whatsoever.”
At a group assembly in October, Pennsylvania Corrections Secretary John Wetzel reportedly acknowledged that the brand new mail system wasn’t good however stated it was essential to maintain prisons protected and higher than different choices his company thought-about, together with limiting mail to postcards. The division has additionally tried to deal with complaints about lags in supply time: Sensible Communications employed dozens of additional staff and ordered six mail scanners to hurry up processing for Pennsylvania, with the purpose of delivering copies to inmates inside 48 hours. The corporate says its scanners are a few of the highest high quality obtainable available on the market.
However it’s little comfort to inmates like Thomas Simone, a 34-year-old at SCI Retreat. He just lately wrote to FAMM about how the mail coverage impacts him. “Two years ago my father died,” he wrote. “My father was my best friend and I took his passing really hard. After he past my sister offered to send me a lot of my fathers personal photos…I’m doing a life sentence and now with the new policies I’ll never be able to receive these photos of my father. Sure, I could receive a copy of them on regular copy papper, and I will. However, these flimsy pieces of paper will never hold the same sentiment. That is by far the way these new policy changes have hurt me the most.”
Learn Onzik’s and Simone’s letters under, courtesy of Okay. Celeste Trusty of FAMM: