The Biden Administration must walk back the MailGuard program banning letters from home in federal prisons

The Bureau of Prisons is considering a heartless, ineffective policy with far-reaching effects.

by Wanda Bertram, July 29, 2021

The Prison Policy Initiative has campaigned for years to protect incarcerated people’s letters from home, because letters are often their only lifeline to loved ones and the outside world. We’ve been concerned for some time that private companies — which already make it costly for incarcerated people to make phone calls and video calls — would someday partner up with prisons to block people from sending physical mail, too.

Now, our fears are coming true: The telecom company Smart Communications is trying to sell prisons its “MailGuard” service — where the company scans incarcerated people’s letters from home and gives them printed or digital copies instead — and the federal Bureau of Prisons just piloted the service. The Bureau of Prisons isn’t the first to try MailGuard — some jails have been using it for years, and Pennsylvania has been using MailGuard in its prisons since 2018 — but if the federal system starts replacing letters from home with scanned copies, more states will follow.

Indeed, in May, The Orlando Sentinel reported that the Florida Department of Corrections is planning not only to convert incoming mail to scans, but to start charging incarcerated people to access their own mail. The precedent set by the Bureau of Prisons is a dangerous one.

We’ve joined Just Detention International (JDI) and over 40 other civil rights organizations to demand that the Biden Administration stop experimenting with this heartless technology. The MailGuard program is unjust, as JDI’s open letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland explains, and not only because it robs people of the solace of holding a letter from a loved one:

  • When the federal prison system bans mail, it’s endorsing cruelty as a response to a health issue: Its policy implies that punishing all incarcerated people and their families forever is an appropriate response to dangerous items occasionally coming in through the mail. We’ve already seen prisons and jails use this rationale to justify other cruel policies, like banning in-person visits, and it’s an argument that needs to be stopped rather than encouraged.
  • The program is helping a private company get rich, despite President Biden’s campaign pledge to get profiteers out of the criminal justice system. “While scans of letters may be provided for free,” Just Detention International’s letter explains, “the clear intention of Smart Communications’ program is to push incarcerated people toward exorbitantly priced paid services like email or phone calls” — services that Smart Communications also sells.
  • Scanned mail can be very hard to read for people with a visual disability, who will suffer if federal prisons implement MailGuard. People in prison are three times more likely to have a visual impairment.

We’re thrilled to see Just Detention International leading the fight to stop the MailGuard program in federal prisons. And as more advocates get involved in trying to stop this horrible experiment, they may find these other resources helpful:

  • Mia Armstrong’s visually-striking 2018 article in Slate, revealing that when MailGuard scanned a person’s letters and photographs, the scans were often of such poor quality that the recipient couldn’t make out details like their loved ones’ faces.
  • Our previous research on Smart Communications. Before landing its first contract with a state prison system to scan postal mail (in Pennsylvania), Smart Communications mainly contracted with local jails, selling a variety of telecom services often bundled into one deal. These bundled contracts were riddled with exploitative clauses. For example, Smart Communications has offered jails “100% phone commissions” — in other words, offered to charge families high prices to make phone calls and return 100% of the revenue to the jail itself. (Of course, only by bundling phone calls into a deal with other pricey telecom services for families could Smart Communications make this offer profitable to itself.)
  • Our two reports on jails banning letters from home. We’ve been concerned about letter bans ever since some jails began implementing restrictive policies. Our reports Return to Sender and Protecting Written Family Communications in Jails contain some helpful evidence in favor of preserving mail behind bars:
    • Statements from corrections agencies like the American Correctional Association highlighting the benefits of written communication, and even this telling quote from the Los Angeles County Sheriff: “We believe the mail coming to inmates is as important as their phone calls. If we were to limit the mail, we believe we would see a rise in mental challenges, maybe even violence.”
    • A handy state by state chart, showing that many state policies already advise that incarcerated people should have virtually unlimited contact with their families through the mail.

As Just Detention International concludes in the open letter we signed: “Banning physical mail harms the well-being of incarcerated people, while offering no meaningful benefits.” During the COVID-19 pandemic, with prison visits suspended, families with loved ones locked up have had to work even harder to maintain crucial family bonds. The federal government shouldn’t be partnering with a private company to strain these families even further.

Wanda Bertram is the Communications Strategist at the Prison Policy Initiative. (Other articles | Full bio | Contact)

3 responses:

  1. Sara Crowley says:

    My loved one said that they photocopied all 26th of the pictures I sent. And that they were crooked and almost couldn’t even see the picture because it was so blurry in poor quality

  2. Kathryn Penrose-DeClark says:

    My son is a guest of the feds at the LSCI in Allenwood, PA. They began scanning mail there a couple of months ago. They haven’t begun charging them for it. Yet. It’s ridiculous, and so punitive. And it needs to stop before it’s entrenched in the system.

    1. Hi Kathryn- I’m very sorry to hear it. Are you able to share any more about the new policy at FCI Allenwood? Can you still send mail directly to your son’s address at the prison, or is the prison now making you send letters to a different address? (Often, when prisons contract with a company to scan the mail, family members have to start sending mail to the company’s facility where the mail gets processed.)

      Thanks in advance for any more details you feel comfortable sharing.

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