Imagine your birthday passing while you’re in prison. You’ve been waiting weeks for the envelope that you know is on its way. Finally, the day comes: You hear your name at mail call. But when you open the envelope, you don’t find the card that your children painstakingly decorated for you with their markers and crayons. In its place is a black-and-white photocopy, too blurry to decipher their handwriting or drawings. Their artwork is difficult to make out, colors nonexistent. You search for the photograph of them that you requested they enclose, but that too is photocopied. Their faces are marred by the low-quality printer ink, difficult to even identify. What’s left is just an echo.
The scenario, while grim, is becoming a reality in far too many prisons.
For the past three years, there have been efforts in prisons nationwide to transition to mail-scanning systems that replace original physical correspondence with digitally scanned or photocopied replicas.
Physical mail, such as original letters and other correspondence, evokes stronger emotional responses than digital replicas. Mail allows the recipient to derive comfort, meaning, and closeness that even high quality duplicates do not, especially when that mail comes from loved ones. Studies show that letter-writing between incarcerated people and contacts on the outside establishes interpersonal relationships and feelings of community—which are linked to a decreased likelihood of reoffense.
What Does Letter Scanning Legislation Look Like?
In February of 2020, the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) issued a request for information on letter-scanning companies and services, with the stated intention of reducing costs, streamlining the BOP’s day to day operations, eliminating contraband material in prisons, and broadening access to “investigative intelligence”. Shortly after, the BOP followed through with a pilot program with a company named Smart Communications that scanned correspondence addressed to incarcerated people into a database and gave recipients a photocopied replica of their mail instead of the original letters.
The pilot program, which launched in March 2020 at Federal Correctional Institution (FCI) Beckley in West Virginia and United States Penitentiary (USP) Canaan in Pennsylvania, coincided with the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, which quickly froze in-person visitations to prisons. This left mail correspondence as one of the only forms of communication that incarcerated people had with friends and family on the outside.
Under the pilot program, people mailing cards, letters, or photographs to people incarcerated at FCI Beckley or USP Canaan had to mail their correspondence to the Smart Communications office in Florida, where employees would process the mail and then send out photocopies to the recipient, instead of sending mail directly to their incarcerated loved ones.
How Does Scanning Mail Affect Incarcerated People and Their Loved Ones?
Physical mail is the most inexpensive, accessible method for people in prisons and jails to maintain a line of communication with friends and family on the outside. Mail scanning not only strips them of the basic privacy and ownership of their mail but also sentimentality with their loved ones.
Mail often includes artwork, greeting cards, personal photos, and other mementoes that remind incarcerated people that their families and friends value their relationship and are making an effort to keep in touch with them. Intercepting this correspondence internally or with third-party companies serves only to increase surveillance within prisons and break down connections that incarcerated individuals have to the outside.
Mail recipients in prisons and jails aren’t the only ones affected by letter scanning legislation. The use of third-party databases poses a concern for families and friends who send mail to prisons, namely concerning the storage of their correspondence.
Among the services that the BOP initially requested was the option to build an easily searchable database for “every registered sender and all correspondence received.” Smart Communications responded with a service called Mailguard, which can be used to send mail to facilities that scan and replicate each piece of correspondence and upload it to a database from where prison officials can review and approve the incoming mail in the database. This means that photographs, original artwork, and written communication from the children and families of incarcerated people could now be collected and indefinitely stored in electronic databases.
Senders and recipients alike have expressed concerns about this new infringement into their privacy, where the personal information of loved ones can be collected and stored at the will of prison officials.
Furthermore, in states that have already had mail-scanning systems in effect, complaints have been rising about the low quality of the photocopied correspondence.
Claire Shubik-Richards, the executive director of the Pennsylvania Prison Society, has spoken out about concerns she’s received from incarcerated people that not only has their mail been severely delayed or misdelivered but also the quality is compromised when they do receive their letters. Photographs and drawings are especially compromised, rendering original artwork or pictures of loved ones blurry, unrecognizable, and low resolution.
These are the aspects of mail that are the most personal, that bridge the distance between people in prison and their loved ones. Replacing their original mail with substantially poorer quality replicas weakens the bonds they are able to maintain with friends and family on the outside.
Surveillance and Tracking Concerns
Smart Communications also has a tool called the Smart Tracker, which allows them to launch extensive surveillance efforts on senders who opt to track updates on the mail they send to prisons. What Smart Tracker doesn’t make clear to senders is that this opt-in allows them to collect data that includes senders’ email addresses, physical addresses, IP addresses, phone numbers, and GPS locations. The increased caution that comes with this new system will likely affect the amount or frequency of correspondence that incarcerated people receive, affecting one more source of connection between the inside and outside worlds.
Currently, legal mail is intended to be immune from such policies. Some prisons do not scan legal mail, while others use a machine provided by Smart Communications that incarcerated people have access to in order to scan their own legal mail under supervision of prison staff. Recipients are then only allowed to keep the copy, while the prison stores the original. As a response, the Abolitionist Law Center sued the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections for using Smart Communications to handle legal mail, calling it “surveillance on a scale that we haven’t really seen before in prisons.”
In a letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland, several prison policy groups expressed their concerns about what these letter scanning systems meant for incarcerated people’s privacy. Later that summer, the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University submitted a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to the BOP to seek out more information about the retention and surveillance of correspondence sent to individuals in federal prisons.
The lawsuit filed by the Knight First Amendment group recognizes the already-pervasive history of prison officials surveilling correspondence into prisons but emphasizes the increased privacy violations that come with electronically retaining information found in mail. Additionally, the lawsuit draws upon the lived experiences of family members of incarcerated people, including one spouse who disclosed to reporters that her husband requested she no longer send photographs with the faces of their children or grandchildren, citing privacy concerns.
Who Benefits from Letter Scanning Legislation?
The invasive effects of mail scanning are amplified when analyzed in tandem with the primary stated goal of the program: eliminating contraband brought into prisons via physical correspondence.
The lawsuit from Columbia University mentions that Pennsylvanian prisons adopted the MailGuard system as early as 2018, citing a direct response to the alleged risk that “incoming letters soaked in synthetic cannabinoids could be used to introduce contraband into prisons and jails and could sicken staff.” Yet, based on subsequent drug interdiction data, the letter scanning program did not lead to a decrease in the average drug positivity rate. Furthermore, it was later found in multiple states that there was a slight increase in the drug positivity rate, meaning incoming mail was not a significant risk for contraband in the affected prisons.
Letter Scanning Legislation in Appalachia: A State-by-State Overview
States have taken a variety of approaches to scanning mail, with some opting to initiate contracts with third party companies like Smart Communications and Pigeonly. Others opt to conduct mail-scanning internally, appointing prison officials to sort, review, and copy or digitize correspondence.
Knowing the specific mechanisms and stakeholders of prison mail-scanning is key to advocating for incarcerated people to have privacy and agency over their correspondence.
At APBP, we serve six states in the Appalachian region, and we want to provide an overview of the mail scanning legislation in each of those states. While not all six states are publicly engaging in letter scanning practices, new legislation may be introduced at any time.
West Virginia was the first state in the Appalachian region to implement a mail-scanning system, beginning as early as 2017. West Virginia Code §15A-4-7 permits prison commissioners and their designees to open, review, and copy correspondence sent to incarcerated people with the justification of maintaining prison safety. The only exception specified prevents prison officials from reviewing and copying mail sent from an attorney, in order to maintain client confidentiality.
The West Virginia Regional Jail Authority, whose jurisdiction covers the counties of Franklin, Roanoke, Montgomery, and the city of Salem, uses the aforementioned Smart Communications MailGuard system and allows incarcerated people to view their correspondence digitally for free. The jail has worked with Smart Communications to establish tablet kiosks in all prison housing units, so that correspondence can be scanned into the database for review and viewing before the original copy is subsequently destroyed. However, Smart Communications and West Virginia Regional Jail have established a set of restrictions for mail that can be sent and successfully delivered to the recipient, which includes the following:
- No construction paper, card stock, or sketch paper
- No greeting cards
- No paper with any coloring or markings
These restrictions make it extremely difficult for people on the outside to send original artwork, cards, or other handmade sentimental correspondence to their incarcerated loved ones. Whether they receive poorly photocopied versions, or digital scans, originals are withheld by prison staff, and not delivered at all if they do not meet the above restrictions.
A large number of West Virginia corrections facilities also have tie-ups with Pigeonly. Unlike Smart Communications, Pigeonly includes information on their website about the importance of upholding incarcerated people’s constitutional rights to receive correspondence, and they emphasize their commitment to providing people with a low cost option to send mail to incarcerated loved ones. However, platforms like Pigeonly pose many of the same privacy risks as Smart Communications, and they primarily frame themselves as a service that will eliminate contraband in prisons and uphold safety—a result that mail scanning has not led to.
Once letters have been scanned into their database, Pigeonly uses AI-powered screening technology that reads “word choice, emoji use, and context” to screen mail for keywords and phrases that can be pre-selected for investigation by prison mailroom officials. After this screening, all correspondence is able to be digitally backed up for two years for intelligence officials to access at any time.
Additionally, Pigeonly specifies that the West Virginia Division of Corrections has identified CorrLinks as their communication partner. CorrLinks is a privately owned corporation that partners with a corrections department and an email-based system, allowing people behind bars to communicate with friends and family. However, in order to use the CorrLinks system, incarcerated people must pay an unspecified fee.
Virginia’s mail scanning policy went into effect in April of 2018, and operations are largely handled internally. The Virginia Department of Corrections website lists the types of mail that will likely be approved to be replicated and delivered to recipients, with less restrictive regulations than West Virginia’s. Greeting cards and postcards are permitted but will only be delivered as black and white photocopies, which detracts from the quality of the original correspondence.
Mail scanning is in effect at “Security Level 2 facilities and above”—notable considering that the majority of prisons in Virginia include security level 2 and above populations.
Ohio spearheaded mail-scanning systems in their prisons in January of 2022. Before their official contract launched with their digital scanning partner, correctional facilities photocopied correspondence internally, providing recipients with physical replicas of their mail. In January, they began their partnership with Global Tel Link (GTL), a company based in Falls Church, Virginia, that made a roughly $22.7 million contract with the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections.
GTL will provide prison staff with the necessary equipment to digitally scan mail and upload it into a searchable database before making letters viewable to the recipient. The company also provides an option to send selected mail to a secure location to undergo drug analysis if prison officials suspect that mail has been used to transport contraband. As a result, the primary justification being presented by the Ohio DRC and GTL is that this new initiative will help incarcerated people battle substance abuse and addiction, a goal that has yet to see substantial results under the existing system.
As of yet, Kentucky has not announced state-wide policy changes that mandate incoming prison mail scanning. However, several counties and corrections facilities have independently made the decision to roll out mail scanning programs, several of which impose even harsher restrictions than seen in other neighboring states.
In Kenton County, people in prison are no longer allowed to receive any type of handwritten letter. The only permitted type of mail is postal postcards with messages in pen or pencil—markers and crayons are banned. Postcards are then scanned and displayed digitally on kiosks, with the original correspondence being destroyed and discarded.
Such regulations serve only one purpose: to drive a communication barrier between incarcerated people and their children and families who wish to send them handmade artwork, cards, and other sentimental mail.
It is still unknown how widespread this practice is in Kentucky, but evidence points to the state being in the early stages of implementing third-party led mail scanning.
Maryland does not yet have published legislation indicating that mail-scanning systems have been implemented. However, we cannot confirm that there are no facilities in Maryland that scan incoming mail.
Tennessee does not have published legislation indicating that mail-scanning systems have been implemented, but mail-scanning may still be occurring on a facility-by-facility basis.
Pushing Back Against Mail Scanning Legislation
Advocates in several states are working to fight against mail scanning legislation and restrictive mail policies. Several protestors and advocacy organizations in California have overturned letter bans in counties that implemented policies that only allow 4 x 6 postcards to be sent to recipients in prisons. Their state- and county-wide organization efforts successfully pushed back against policies that restricted sentimental mail from being sent to prisons.
Advocating for an end to nationwide mail restrictions is arguably a more feasible goal than targeting individual states that have recently passed mail scanning legislation, which are unlikely to reconsider and overturn their policies.
The organization Just Detention International has created a template people can use to send a letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland calling for an end to the BOP’s pilot program with Smart Communications across federal prisons. The letter emphasizes the ineffectiveness of tools such as MailGuard in preventing contraband in prisons as well as the disproportionate harm to the emotional well-being of people in prison it creates, especially for those with certain disabilities or those who cannot pay the fees associated with viewing digitized mail.
A Dangerous Precedent
Restrictions on original correspondence are not only harmful on their own but also set a precedent for future restrictions on the few avenues that people in prison have to seek out an education, read for pleasure, and maintain relationships with loved ones. These policies lead to a domino effect that no longer serves the stated purpose of making prisons safer and instead contributes to isolating people in prisons from meaningful connections to the outside.
Programs that digitize and restrict the mail being sent to prisons have already gone beyond letters and cards. At certain prisons in New York, such as Riker’s Island, for example, corrections officials have extended the ban on paper correspondence to paper books.
Digital mail scanning has no place in the transaction of mail between loved ones and only adds a layer of impersonalization to an already surveilled system. Furthermore, the emergence of several third party corporations to fill a niche for prison mail scanning is indicative of a troubling trend that only seems to be gaining traction.
We will continue to advocate for the incarcerated folks across Appalachia, including fighting for their right to access books, mail, and educational opportunities while behind bars. Get involved with our work or contact us to learn more about how you can help us challenge mass incarceration through books, education, and community engagement.