by Dale Chappell
Soon, federal prisoners will not be able to receive any paper correspondence but will have to read letters on “kiosks” in housing units. Bureau of Prisons (BOP) officials say the move is needed in order to stop the flow of drugs coming in through the mail, including synthetic marijuana known as K2. Critics say that’s nonsense and the problem lies elsewhere.
In a statement to the Associated Press on October 21, 2019, the BOP said it is implementing a pilot program in which mail will be scanned at a remote facility and then sent electronically to the federal prisons, with the original paper mail destroyed. Right now, they say they are copying mail and giving prisoners the photocopies while retaining the originals on file.
The move comes after a letter from a number of federal lawmakers urged the BOP to adopt a policy similar to one already in place in the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (PADOC). [See: PLN, Sept. 2019, p.60]. U.S. Senators Pat Toomey and Bob Casey, joined by Rep. Matt Cartwright, wrote to BOP administrators touting the PADOC’s policy as one that has helped to reduce drugs coming into Pennsylvania prisons. The letter also cited several alleged incidents where prison workers were exposed to drugs in prisoner mail and had to be treated at a hospital. “PADOC has reported that this new mail system has been extremely effective,” the Congressmen’s letter stated. “We urge the BOP to follow Pennsylvania’s lead.”
Pennsylvania contracts with a remote mail scanning facility located in Florida, which costs the state’s taxpayers around $4 million a year. The BOP said it likes the idea but has some concerns. Sonya Thompson, the BOP’s assistant director of information, said they must ensure that the contractor respects prisoners’ privacy, that contractors are not related to any prisoners, that they are U.S. residents, and that the contractor will not disclose prisoners’ mail to unauthorized sources, such as the media. She noted that the BOP has numerous high-profile prisoners and those in protective custody.
Sara Rose, senior staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, said the fear of prison workers becoming sick from touching mail possibly tainted with drugs is “way overblown.” She stated the evidence shows that “the vast majority, at least of the drugs they discovered coming in, were coming in through staff or visitors.” Rose is involved in a pending lawsuit against the PADOC about the new mail policy.
How effective is that policy? The PADOC found that 0.7 percent of its incoming prisoner mail was tainted with drugs in August 2018. Since implementing the program, the rate as of July 2019 was 0.6 percent.
The only exception to the paperless mail policy will be legal mail, the BOP said; legal mail will still be inspected by staff and then given to prisoners. But the PADOC went further with its legal mail policy, giving copies to prisoners and then keeping the original mail in the department’s possession. That’s the subject of a pending lawsuit. While BOP policy allows staff to inspect and even copy a prisoner’s regular mail, it cannot do so with legal mail, which must meet specific criteria to be deemed “legal mail.”
The BOP also would not say how many prison employees it would be diverting to handle the new mail policy. At a time when federal prisons are short-staffed, with BOP workers routinely having to fill mandatory overtime slots, the new policy, some say, may tax understaffed facilities. The BOP has had 4,000 vacant job positions since 2017.
The first federal prison to implement the new mail system will be USP Canaan in Pennsylvania, and the BOP expects to include more facilities as soon as possible. However, wardens will have discretion on whether to use the mail scanning system, depending on the severity of the drug problem at a particular prison.
Prisoners’ rights advocacy group FAMM sent a letter to BOP director Kathleen Hawk Sawyer on October 29, 2019 in regard to the new mail program. “FAMM is very concerned that these new restrictions will make it more difficult for families to stay in touch with their incarcerated loved ones and will do little to keep drugs out of prisons ...,” the organization wrote. “For people incarcerated in BOP facilities, written correspondence with family and friends is one of the most common, important, and inexpensive means of communication.”
FAMM asked the BOP to answer a number of questions concerning the new mail policy, and concluded its letter by saying, “We worry that the bad acts of a few will now be used to hurt everyone who relies on mail to maintain family ties.”
Sources: apnews.com, riverreporter.com, whyy.org, abcnews.go.com, FAMM.org
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