Pennsylvania DOC’s New Mail Policy Robs Prisoners of the Personal Touch; Lawsuits Over Legal Mail Settle
by David M. Reutter
Last year the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (PDOC) implemented a policy that prohibits prisoners from receiving original correspondence from their family members and friends. The policy went into effect in September 2018 in response to a 12-day statewide lockdown the prior month after an “unprecedented number of inmate and staff exposures to unknown substances.” [See: PLN, Dec. 2018, p.1].
Prison officials claimed those substances were synthetic drugs, such as fentanyl or K2, sprayed onto letters sent to prisoners. Toxicologists raised serious doubts as to whether that was correct, however, and the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that some experts believed “one likely diagnosis for the staff illnesses may be ‘mass psychogenic illness’ – that is, a sort of contagious hysteria fueled by fears of dangerous exposure.”
Regardless, the PDOC enlisted a Florida company, Smart Communications, to handle incoming correspondence. The new mail policy involves a “scan-send-print-deliver” service that requires prisoner mail to be sent to Smart Communications’ location in Florida. The company then opens the mail and scans it, and it is printed at the prison and delivered to the prisoner.
According to Claire Shubik-Richards, executive director of the Pennsylvania Prison Society, prisoners have complained about not getting their mail, lengthy delays in delivery and the quality of the scans, especially photos.
“On two occasions, I’ve received only the photocopy of the envelope that the mail came in, but not the letters,” said prisoner Robert Pezzeca, who filed a grievance that was denied. “So I don’t expect to ever get my mail.”
The PDOC’s contract with Smart Communications, awarded in an emergency no-bid process, took effect on September 5, 2018 and is worth $376,000 a month, or about $16 million over the three-year contract term.
PDOC spokeswoman Amy Worden said 48 staff members went to hospitals due to drug exposure in August 2018, and that number dropped to eight in September when the new mail policy was in place. “All of our indicators including drug overdoses, drug finds, and positive drug tests have dropped by large percentages,” she said.
“Is there a less invasive way than what the [PDOC] has come up with for detecting narcotics...?” asked Shubik-Richards. In December 2018, protestors unfurled a banner as Governor Tom Wolf was giving a speech before the lighting of the Capitol’s Christmas tree. The banner read, “Wolf, don’t be a Grinch, end cruel mail policies.” The governor defended the policy in post-speech comments to a reporter.
The loss of the personal connection through mail is a significant issue for prisoners and their families. “As a mother, I cry over my mail. I kiss my mail so my baby can feel and smell his mother,” said Lorraine Haw. “A photocopy can’t do that.”
Advocates also noted that receiving a scanned print-out of a drawing by a prisoner’s child, or family photos, was not the same as having originals, which are kept by prison officials.
Initially, the PDOC also required legal mail sent to prisoners to be scanned and copied. The ACLU of Pennsylvania, the Abolitionist Law Center, the Amistad Law Project and the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project filed suit over that practice in October 2018, claiming it violated attorney-client confidentiality and legal ethics. Several attorneys testified they had stopped sending correspondence to their incarcerated clients due to concerns it would be read or retained by prison staff.
“No other corrections institution in the nation screens and duplicates legal mail in this way,” stated ACLU of Pennsylvania executive director Reggie Shuford. “Attorney-client privilege is a cornerstone of legal representation. The Department of Corrections’ new mail policy undermines that privilege in violation of First Amendment protections for both the prisoners and their attorneys.”
State prisoner Davon R. Hayes also filed a lawsuit over the PDOC’s handling of legal mail; the district court consolidated the cases, which settled in March 2019. Pursuant to the settlement, prison officials will no longer screen and scan incoming legal mail, though the policy for non-legal correspondence remains in effect. See: Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project v. Wetzel, U.S.D.C. (M.D. Penn.), Case No. 1:18-cv-02100-JEJ-EBC.
Sources: slate.com, witf.org, post-gazette.com, mcall.com, Philadelphia Inquirer
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Related legal case
Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project v. Wetzel
|Cite||U.S.D.C. (M.D. Penn.), Case No. 1:18-cv-02100-JEJ-EBC|