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Florida Now Digitizing Incoming Mail for State Prisoners

by Kevin W. Bliss

Starting from a four-prison pilot launched on January 18, 2022, the Florida Department of Corrections (DOC) has now banned state prisoners at all 128 of its facilities from receiving any tangible routine mail. Instead they are delivered electronic copies of their mail on tablets.

DOC has contracted with Smart Communications this year to manage mail digitization. CEO Jon Logan said that security issues dictated the change, saving lives potentially lost to fentanyl overdoses, thwarting drug business and reducing gang activity.

In announcing the change, DOC also promised that “[r]egardless of the type, frequency, percentage, or manner in which contraband is introduced,” the prison system “is committed to preventing dangerous items and substances from causing harm to staff and inmates.”

There’s just one problem with that explanation: Records reflect that contraband introduced through routine mail accounts for only 1% of the total annually seized by DOC. Florida Cares Charity Corporation Executive Director Denise Rock said that was like punishing all 80,000 state prisoners for the actions of fewer than 800.

Legal or other privileged mail is exempted from the rule and still delivered. But not greeting cards. Nor a kid’s artwork. Moreover, the new system’s profits flow directly to DOC and Smart Communications, while prisoners and their families bear the costs if they desire to keep in contact with their loved ones.

“Prisoners have to pay to communicate the way the rest of us do for free,” observed Wanda Bertram of Prison Policy Initiative (PPI), an advocacy group for the incarcerated. “It’s highly exploitive and centered around getting as much money as they can out of the family.”

As PPI notes, prison systems save money by bundling phone calls, video visitation, money transfers and e-mails in a contract with one or two vendors, who may then count on prisoners and their loved ones to cover their infrastructure costs through user fees, pocketing any other revenue—from gaming, movies, books and music—as profit.

With the move, Florida joins prison systems and jails in 27 states that have switched over to digitized mail. DOC’s new rule, promulgated November 29, 2021, mandates that all routine incoming mail be scanned and transmitted to prisoners digitally, meaning prisoners also receive a photocopy of any pictures they are sent, and then only at cost and when requested.

Lorraine Haw is one prisoner’s loved one distressed that the move denied her the opportunity to connect with her son. “You cannot scan or copy the tears of a loved one!” she said. “Where is the humanity for those incarcerated?”

The new system also holds concerns for those who have been sexually assaulted, who stated they could not continue sensitive conversations because they feared everything was being recorded and logged for future reference.

With its insistence on solving a mailed contraband problem that doesn’t exist, the Sunshine State is not the only one indebting prisoners and their families to a private vendor just to stay in touch.

A year after the New Mexico Corrections Department made a similar move, a July 2022 report by the state Legislative Finance Committee noted the change had zero effect on drug use in the state prison system, though its privately contracted mail digitizer, Securus Technologies subsidiary JPay, had made $100,000. In fact, the report noted, positive results on random New Mexico prisoner drugs tests had nearly doubled to 3.7% in 2021–22, up from just 2% before the change in 2020–21.

Meanwhile, the effect of the change remains to be seen on publications like PLN, which is already censored by DOC, resulting in a lawsuit pending in federal court. See: Human Rights Def. Center v. Inch, USDC (S.D. FL.), Case No. 9:21-cv-81391. 

Source: Northwest Florida Daily News, Public News Service, Source New Mexico

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Related legal case

Human Rights Defense Center v. Mark S. Inch et al.