by K. Robert Schaeffer
How an incarcerated writer is fighting a sad new normal of censorship and mail obstruction in Pennsylvania prisons
This essay originally appeared in Inquest on October 19, 2023. The original can be found at https://inquest.org/misadventures-in-mail-censorship/
From August into September 2018, the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (PADOC) locked down all of its state prisons for two weeks after staff claimed to have been sickened by exposure to synthetic cannabinoids. Without evidence, mail and books were targeted as the primary source of these drugs. In reaction, the PADOC has since required that all incoming mail now be routed through a scanning service in Florida. All books and periodicals—initially banned outright—must be sent through a centralized “Security Processing Center” (SPC), a shadowy black site established on the grounds of SCI-Rockview (a Pennsylvania state prison near State College), where they are screened for contraband before being forwarded to the appropriate institution.
These policy changes would forever impact my fundamental ability to access information—for education, research, and pure curiosity—while the drugs they were intended to prevent remain as readily available as ever.
From its founding in November 2018, the SPC has been a source of unfathomable frustration and disappointment. My family will order me a book—a collection of eighteenth-century artist Giovanni Battista Piranesi’s Imaginary Prisons (Carceri d’invenzione) prints, a biography of Samuel Beckett, a Thomas Pynchon novel, the Tibetan Book of the Dead—and I’ll wait, and wait, and it will never arrive.
Often the delay in delivery is so extreme—throughout 2019, up to three months—that my dad will reorder the book, assuming the first copy to be lost. In fact, during that first year of operations, every single book he sent had to be ordered multiple times before one copy would manage to successfully navigate the capricious bowels of the SPC. And, when it comes to lost books, it is nearly impossible to hold this faraway facility accountable because it operates outside the jurisdiction of my institutional grievance system. People filing grievances against the SPC are repeatedly denied simply on the basis that no one at our prison is responsible for the problem.
Time is also against us. A grievance has to be filed within fifteen days of the offense, but DOC policy now states that the SPC can take up to three weeks to process an incoming book. So when my family informs me, via delivery confirmation on Amazon, that the book has arrived at the SPC, I only have fifteen days from that delivery date to file a grievance if the book never turns up. But, in reality, books take months and months to arrive, so how long am I to wait?
When I contact the mailroom about a missing book, the supervisor tells me no such book has arrived and that I should just have my family contact the sender for a refund, even if delivery was confirmed by the sender online. For a convincing grievance, I’d also likely need a printout of this delivery confirmation from Amazon, but Smart Communications—the company tasked with scanning our mail—takes a minimum of two weeks to process incoming letters, so even if my dad sent me the delivery confirmation immediately, I still wouldn’t get it in time to file a timely grievance on the missing book.
When a book does occasionally turn up, it is brutalized, a survivor of untold trauma, the SPC security staff having torn away its dust cover, violated its pages with ion scans and X-ray imaging, cracking apart its spine and bindings in their paranoid search for Suboxone strips. It might sit in the mailroom for weeks before it is delivered. Or the block officer may deliver it to the wrong person. Or the mailroom will flag it for the Incoming Publication Review Committee (IPRC) and ultimately deny it for vague reasons related to institutional security. Or I’ll receive a notice from Smart Communications that some books have been returned to sender because a friend or organization, confused by the complexities of a single inmate having both a mailing address and a publications address, has sent them to the wrong address.
The chances of a book reaching me are diminishingly small, and all the joy I once felt from receiving a new stack of books has been sapped away.
The mail scanning process is even more of a mess. For years, my parents have sent me packets of research materials printed from various online sources to fuel my writing efforts and curiosities. Since the policy change, easily half of these mailings have vanished without a trace. Others turn up missing pages or shrunken to an illegible size.
But the problem isn’t just on the scanning end: the prison mail room also loses and obstructs delivery. Smart Communications offers a tracking app for the mail it processes (which conveniently also surveils and collects data on the sender!), and my dad regularly (though not to say consistently) receives notifications that his mail has been scanned and forwarded to the prison—yet it often won’t be delivered by the mailroom.
This happened three times in late 2021, with three consecutive mailings. The contents included research materials for my first book—Scan Before Reading, a memoir about living under these very same dizzying policies—and included the PADOC’s contract with Smart Communications, PADOC budget reports, and other publicly available documents. When I raised the issue with the mailroom, the supervisor insisted they’d already been printed and delivered to me, but added that if I was sure I hadn’t received them, the materials could be sent through the IPRC to see if the content was allowed.
In other words, there’d been no problem with the mail’s content when she supposedly delivered it to me the first time—but if I wanted to make a fuss about it, there’d almost assuredly be one now. Naturally, the IPRC denied it, and I was compelled to file a grievance on the matter.
More than anything, it was the time drag that was most disheartening. For example, the third of these mailings arrived at the prison (according to the mail tracking app) on November 8, 2021. But because I’d been worn down, over years, to expect weeks of delay in the delivery of my mail, I waited, and waited. On November 17, I finally contacted the mailroom. It took five days for the supervisor to respond (the maximum allowable for requests), only to inform me that the content would have to be reviewed by the IPRC, even though policy states that the IPRC needed to review the mail within ten days of receipt—not to mention that this review was obviously retributive, prompted by my inquiry into the status of my mail. (This same process had played out for the previous two mailings as well).
It took almost two more weeks before the mailroom supervisor even sent me the official notice of the IPRC referral (November 30), and another three weeks before the IPRC’s denial arrived (December 20), claiming the materials were a threat to facility security and operations. To make a challenge more difficult, the IPRC (which is headed by the same mailroom supervisor who failed to deliver the mail and then made the IPRC referral) dated the decision December 6, but waited until the end of the review period—even though policy states I should be notified within two days of the decision. That way, by the time I received the denial, much of my own fifteen-day grievance window had already passed.
To file my grievance, I needed to photocopy the relevant request slips (of my interactions with the mailroom supervisor) and the IPRC denial form, but I had just been moved to a new block and wasn’t able to attend my last library session to access the photocopier. Luckily, a sign-up list on the new block went up just in time and I was able to submit my challenge on the last possible day.
IPRC-related grievances only have two potential steps: they first go to the facility manager, and then a final appeal can be made to the PADOC’s Central Office. I was able to submit this initial grievance on December 22, though it wasn’t even processed until December 28. The facility manager’s response—a flat denial—took until January 20, 2022, to reach me. By then, it had been three full months since my dad’s mailing had been forwarded to the mailroom from Florida. I submitted my final appeal on January 28, having to again wait to access the library to recopy the relevant documents.
Then, on March 30, utterly out of the blue, I received the entire printed mailing with a new IPRC approval form, having apparently won my appeal! But then, in an unexpected twist, a week later I received a notice of extension from the grievance coordinator, stating that the mail was being referred to Central Office’s Security Division for further review, suggesting that the mailroom had incorrectly delivered this supposedly dangerous mail to me before it should have. On March 30, I would receive an inexplicable second printing of the same mailing.
Yet despite having now gotten two copies of my missing mailing, the final grievance decision in my favor wouldn’t arrive until April 19, 2022—nearly seven months after my dad had sent the mail to me—confirming that even the humorless and stone-hearted security experts of Central Office could find no problems with the contents of the mail. So much stress and hassle and aggravation—all because the mailroom supervisor didn’t want to admit she’d made a mistake and forgotten to print my mail!
Before this episode, I had never, in almost ten years of incarceration, filed a single grievance, accepting the long-established jailhouse opinion that the entire process was rigged against us, a huge waste of our time. After the 2018 policy changes, I came to dread my interactions with the mailroom, sensing, every time that the wait for a book or letter had dragged on for too long, that I’d soon have to contact them, and that their indifference and failure to resolve the issue would only increase the sense of helplessness felt by me and my family.
But, in researching my book, I’ve become better informed on the nuances of the mail policy—and the law—more clearly understanding what the prison can and can’t get away with. Since late 2021, I’ve won every grievance I’ve filed against the mailroom related to denying a book, magazine, or the contents of a mailing. (Unfortunately, challenges become more difficult when the mail or book goes missing without a trace, without so much as a blip on a tracking app—still a shockingly common occurrence almost five years into these policies).
Before the policy changes, I can’t remember a single time when my mail was lost, or something sent to me was flagged and denied by the IPRC. In this sad new normal of censorship and mail obstruction in the PADOC, it seems to happen on an almost monthly basis. The difference is, now I know how to beat them at their own game. Now I almost crave the fight.
To conclude, I offer the following tips I have learned for how to fight the denial or confiscation of a book by prison authorities.
1) Always file the paperwork.
No matter how hopeless it might seem; always put in that initial grievance. The prison’s counting on you not to care enough to follow through and challenge them on their decision. The odds might be against you—a rigged grievance system, prison staff who are vindictive or incompetent—but if you don’t contest it, they’ve already won.
2) Know your prison’s mail policy.
Carefully read a copy at the library or have someone familiar with the grievance process explain it to you. For a challenge to have any chance at success, it will likely need to demonstrate how the prison violated its own policies. In the initial grievance, you might try a few angles in your argument, to see which gains the most traction in the prison’s response. Be cool, matter of fact, and respectful in your language, and follow all directions. Attach a photocopy (never the original) of any forms or written interactions with staff that are needed as evidence. Be sure to clearly state what relief you’re seeking (i.e., that you want the decision reversed and the book given to you). Show them you know what you’re doing. It’s also essential to understand the filing deadlines for each step of the process, because most prisons only give you a short window to file a valid challenge. You might want to contact the mailroom too, and let them know that you’ve initiated a challenge to their decision to deny your book or mail, so that they don’t throw it out while the process is ongoing.
3) Know your rights.
Prisons can deny your mail and books for all sorts of vague and unconscionable reasons, but they still need to provide you with those reasons. And some of them might not be good enough for the courts, should the challenge go that far. This is known as due process. The prison needs to inform you in a timely manner of the denial, give you the reason(s), and offer a chance to send the mail out before it’s destroyed. Usually, it has to give the sender the same notice, which almost never happens. Assume that they haven’t done this and contact the sender yourself while you’re challenging the denial on your end. If that person (a family member, a publisher or distributor, etc.) then calls the prison to complain, outraged from the Real World, it might sway the mailroom to rethink its decision. And if not, the fact that the prison didn’t give them due process might improve your chances should the challenge go to court.
4) Exhaust your remedies.
Follow the grievance process as far as it can go, through reviews and appeals, however Kafkaesque and maddening that might be. Make sure to hone your argument at each stage, instead of just reusing the same one from your initial grievance. Respond to the prison’s responses to your argument, and show how they’re in the wrong at each step. If there are steps in the appeal process beyond the prison itself, such as to a higher authority in the DOC, it’s always good to push your challenge at least to that level, because sometimes grievance denials within a prison will simply be the result of staff covering each other’s backs. But a central authority is more likely to reconsider a prison’s censorship decisions because they’re the ones who would have to defend the decision should it ever go to court, and they’re the ones most likely to decide that it isn’t worth the trouble.
5) Be patient.
Sometimes the process can take a long time. Months and months. Keep on top of your deadlines. If you don’t hear anything about your grievance within the allotted time, contact your prison’s grievance coordinator so you don’t miss future appeal deadlines.
6) Channel your indignation into something good.
As you become more familiar with the process and rack up some wins, you’ll be able to turn that sense of helpless outrage you once felt from receiving a baseless confiscation slip or publication review notice into fuel for your writing and activism. You might even come to look forward to these opportunities to hold your prison accountable. Teach others what you’ve learned about the grievance process and help them with their own censorship challenges. Protect your First Amendment rights.
Editor’s Note: This is the third article in a collaboration on prison censorship with PEN America. Read the introduction at: https://inquest.org/ending-carceral-censorship/
K. Robert Schaeffer typed his essay and physically mailed it to PEN America’s Freewrite Project. With the submission, he included a number of supporting documents, showing the process he has undertaken to fight the censorship in the facility where he is incarcerated. PEN America and Inquest edited the submission with Schaeffer’s participation. For a PDF of the original submission, see the full article at: https://inquest.org/misadventures-in-mail-censorship/
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