Missouri prisons ban physical mail, replacing it with photocopies

During his nearly three decades in prison, Chris Santillan received stacks of mail: birthday cards, handwritten letters, drawings of young parents coated with glitter glue. Some objects are irreplaceable, like a photo of her dad on vacation in Mexico, an iguana perched on his shoulder.

“My father passed away 13 years ago, and there is no other copy of this photo,” said Santillan, who was released in February from Potosi Correctional Center in eastern Missouri. “I’m still taking it out to look at it.”

But within weeks, tens of thousands of people in Missouri jails will stop receiving letters and photos in the mail.

Like other states, Missouri will soon ban inmates in state prisons from receiving most physical mail. Instead, the state will pay a private Texas-based company to scan inmate mail and send them digital copies. State corrections officials say the move is necessary to stem the flow of drugs and other contraband into prisons, but criminal justice reform advocates warn it could violate privacy detainees and further isolate them from their families.

As of July 1, anyone wishing to send personal mail to a Missouri inmate should mail it to a centralized treatment facility in Tampa owned by Securus Technologies, where workers will make a digital copy. Prisoners will be able to check their mail on electronic tablets, which they receive free of charge from the company when they first enter prison.

Inmates who do not have access to a tablet will receive hard copies of their personal mail free of charge. Missouri prisons will continue to accept certain types postal mail, including legal correspondence from attorneys, visitation requests, and mail from state agencies.

Outsourcing mail processing will help ease the burden on prison workers in Missouri’s corrections system, which is facing a staffing shortage, said Karen Pojmann, spokeswoman for the Missouri Department of Corrections.

Chris Santillan recorded photos and drawings he received during his nearly three decades in prison, including this handmade card by a now deceased friend.

Screening mail for drugs and inappropriate content is a “long and complex process”, she said.

Missouri prison staff intercepted fentanyl, methamphetamine, suboxone, marijuana and synthetic marijuana in mail sent to prisons this year, the department said, although it was unable to to provide data on the total number of contraband items found in the mail.

“We have seen drugs hidden under stamps, in the folds of envelopes, inside greeting cards or soaked in the paper itself so they are not visible to the naked eye,” said said Pojmann. “If we suspect this has happened, we call in inspectors to test the paper.”

New Mexico, Florida, North Carolina and Pennsylvania have also banned personal mail in prisons, citing concerns about drug trafficking.

Still, it’s unclear whether changes to mail handling will significantly reduce the amount of contraband entering prisons.

An investigation by the Texas Tribune and the Marshall Project Last year found that the flow of contraband through Texas prisons remained largely unchanged, despite statewide mail restrictions.

Add barriers between family members

Some proponents of criminal justice reform say the push to digitize personal mail will further isolate incarcerated people and their families.

Creating an electronic copy of personal mail “just takes away the humanity,” said Clinique Chapman, associate director of the Vera Institute of Justice’s Restoring Promise initiative.

“When your child sends you something, can smell the texture of the pencil or smell your mother’s perfume on a letter, you won’t have that; it will just be copies,” Chapman said. “It just continues to add barriers and space between an incarcerated person and their family members.”

Allowing for-profit companies to digitize and store the personal correspondence of thousands of inmates and their families also poses a serious privacy risk with little benefit, she said.

“Who really wins when we privatize the mail? Families are not; incarcerated people are not; prisons really aren’t,” Chapman said. “So who benefits? Businesses. They capitalize on the backs of those who are incarcerated.

For Santillan, the decision to digitize inmates’ personal mail is troubling, given potential privacy concerns.

“Yes, you are in the custody of the Department of Corrections and have waived some of your privacy rights in favor of the State of Missouri,” Santillan said. “But also to outsource that privacy to a company you know nothing about and who can do anything with that information? This is deeply concerning.

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