Published on: Monday, August 9, 2021

Personal testimonies and research alike demonstrate that regular correspondence with the outside world is crucial to an incarcerated person’s mental health while inside prison as well as their ability to successfully reintegrate upon release (article available here).

For lots of families affected by the criminal justice system, letter writing is the most accessible form of maintaining contact, due to the often exorbitant fees charged by the private companies that operate prison phone service, video calls, and electronic messaging systems. Thus, it’s doubly alarming that more facilities are moving toward restricting traditional physical correspondence in favor of scanning and printing or electronically delivering letters.

In March 2020, the Bureau of Prisons launched a mail scanning pilot with Smart Communications in two federal facilities, USP Canaan and FCI Beckley. The pilot (which excluded legal mail) ended in June, but the agency is “considering the expansion of mail scanning pending funding,” according to BOP spokesperson Donald Murphy.

Though the Smart Communications pilot within federal prisons was fairly limited, individual federal wardens are allowed to implement in-house mail photocopying programs, should they determine their facility needs it. “The size, complexity, and security level of each institution, the degree of sophistication of the inmates confined, staff availability, and other variables require flexibility in correspondence procedures and allow Wardens at each facility to determine if photocopying mail practices will be adopted,” wrote Murphy, the BOP spokesperson, in an email. “A number of BOP facilities impacted by the increased introduction of synthetic drugs are currently copying mail and distributing the copies to the inmates.”

The Smart Communications’ MailGuard program, launched in Pennsylvania prisons in 2018, now operates in more than 110 facilities in 25 states, according to the current listing of facilities on the program’s portal for family members.