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Prisoner’s Activism Leads Colorado DOC to Reverse Ban on Greeting Cards, Postcards and Drawings

by Matt Clarke

Thanks to the activism of Colorado prisoner Tiffany McCoy, the Colorado Department of Corrections (DOC) has rescinded its prohibition against prisoners receiving greeting cards, postcards and drawings. 

In 2018, the DOC implemented a policy whereby prisoners only received black-and-white photocopies of greeting cards, postcards and drawings received in the mail. The intent was to reduce the flow of drugs into the prison system. McCoy, who is incarcerated at the Denver Women’s Correctional Facility, believed the copies were an inadequate substitute for the colorful cards and drawings sent by family members, including prisoners’ children. She believed the policy erected a barrier to remaining in touch with her family. 

“Cards mean everything to us. First that our family went and picked out the card. Went to the store and thought about us and our favorite colors. They had to go buy the stamp, so it took some energy and effort for them,” said McCoy, 29, who has already served a decade of her 28-year sentence for armed robbery. “My family did not touch the photocopies. That’s not what my grandmother went and bought and touched and held. The card might smell like her. It’s knowing that it’s something she touched.”

McCoy turned to students at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law’s Civil Rights Clinic (CRC) to help her in her fight against the mail policy. The CRC contacted Dean Williams, the new executive director of the DOC, and suggested that McCoy, the CRC and the DOC work together to address her concerns, noting that they involved a legitimate free speech issue. The DOC was willing to negotiate.

A new mail policy agreed upon by the parties in May 2019 lifted the ban on greeting cards, postcards and drawings, and applies to all of the DOC’s approximately 20,000 prisoners. However, prison officials retained the right to deny personal correspondence to any prisoner who receives drugs through the mail. 

“Yeah, it’s a problem and yeah, I don’t want drugs trafficked in,” Williams stated. “But I also don’t want ... the ubiquitous ban on any greeting cards. When you’re in prison, it’s a pretty stark world. Getting mail and getting things like that really means something and it’s a way of maintaining connection.”

Williams, who previously ran Alaska’s prison system, was four months into his new job at the DOC when he was contacted by the CRC. “It caused us to pause, which I think is a good thing,” he said, and praised McCoy for pursuing the matter. 

He was also concerned about the high cost of prison phone calls. He noted that some prisoners, including those paid pennies a day for their labor, cannot afford the $0.12/minute phone rates. Ultimately, Williams said he would like to see free phone calls, but seemed unable or unwilling to initiate the policy changes necessary to achieve that goal. 

“Some people in here, their families can’t pay for phone calls,” noted McCoy, who appeared with Williams at a news conference. “Some people in here live off state pay: $3 a month. $9 a month. $16 a month. And it’s hard to juggle, ‘I need shampoo and conditioner’ and ‘I need to call my daughter.’”

She added: “There’s family that I don’t talk to [due to the cost of the phone calls]. I have brothers and sisters and aunts and uncles that I just don’t talk to. I get messages from my other family: ‘She’s doing good,’ or ‘she had a baby.’ Or I’ll wait to call my grandmother on Thanksgiving because lots of my family is there so that’s when I get to talk to them. I can talk to certain people once a year. If calls were free, I’d have a lot more family connection, I’d know a lot more.... I might feel like I have more options when I get out.” 

Perhaps McCoy should start a campaign for lower prison phone rates, given her success in changing the DOC’s mail policy. Global Tel*Link pays the DOC $800,000 a year for maintaining its prison phone monopoly in Colorado. 



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