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Report: Postcard-Only Jail Policies Bad for Reentry, Recidivism

Contrary to claims that postcard-only mail policies make jails safer and save money, a recent report from the Prison Policy Initiative (PPI) contends that bans on sealed, personal letters merely perpetuate the costs of incarceration and exacerbate the criminal justice system's revolving door.

Postcards, by nature, according to the February 2013 PPI report, "prevent families and friends from sharing personal or confidential information with each other," by subjecting all written communications between prisoners and loved ones to review by countless pairs of eyes.

The burden of postcard-only policies is so discouraging, the PPI report argues, that connections between those jailed and their families unravel, and many sever entirely, thereby "hindering reentry and promoting recidivism."

"Mailroom officials, postal carriers, and anyone at the postcard's origin or destination—including cellmates, other people at the jail, or any family members or co-workers who happen to retrieve the mail—all have access to every word written to or from jail on a postcard," writes Leah Sakala, policy analyst for Massachusetts-based PPI and author of the report.

Following in the clownish footsteps of Maricopa County, Az. Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who was the first to institute a postcard-only policy in May 2007, sheriffs in at least 13 states—including California, Florida, Michigan, Missouri, Washington, Colorado and Oregon—have since done the same, with more implemented every year.

While Arpaio's motives are blatantly self-serving—supplying prisoners with outgoing postcards that are degrading and serve as de facto campaign mailers—most jails employing postcard-only policies argue they stymie the influx of drugs and weapons, and save money by streamlining the mail-screening process.

But postcards don't alleviate all security concerns, as evidenced by a methamphetamine-smuggling scheme uncovered in May 2012 at the Yuba County Jail in northern California.

Dewayne Lee Nelson, who was jailed in Yuba County on kidnapping charges, had been receiving both letters and postcards from his wife, Janice Grimmett, that were allegedly soaked in liquid methamphetamine and then mailed to him after they had dried.

"It was a pretty sneaky operation," Martin Horan, commander of a Yuba County task force involved in the investigation, told the Marysville Appeal-Democrat. "They would reapply water in the jail and use the crank that way."

Moreover, postcard-only policies explicitly violate standards set by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which contracts with dozens of facilities, including local jails, to hold undocumented immigrants who, as Sakala writes, "are facing the possibility of being permanently deported from the United States" and torn from their families.

Which is why (PBNDS?) dictates that, "Facilities shall not limit detainees to postcards and shall allow envelope mailings."

The PPI report also showed how postcard-only policies are financially burdensome to families, who are already paying as much as $1 per minute for phone calls, and untold costs for jail commissary items.

Sakala directly compared the cost, "in words-per-penny," of sending a message in a letter sealed in an envelope to that of a postcard.

"Using standard (U.S. postage) rates, I found that every $0.01 of postage covered 134 words written on double-sided, letter-sized writing pad paper," Sakala writes. "On a postcard, the same $0.01 pays for only four words. To write eight double-sided pages worth of text on postcards, which could be sent for $0.45 in an envelope, one would need to send 47 postcards and it would cost more than $15.00.

"In other words, relaying information on a postcard is about 34 times as expensive as in a letter."

The report recommends that, in addition to ICE refusing to contract with facilities that employ postcard-only policies, state regulatory agencies should prohibit them and "professional correctional associations should refuse to accredit" jails that implement them.

"Local jails have a legitimate responsibility to preserve security and control spending," the report concludes, "but they cannot ignore the significant social damage done by suppressing written correspondence."

Source: "Return to Sender: Postcard-Only Mail Policies in Jail," Leah Sakala, Prison Policy Initiative, February 2013,

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