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The Age of Criminal Surveillance: Mail Scanning and the Fight to Keep Physical Mail Alive in Prisons

Posted by Sara Cooper | Jun 06, 2023 | 0 Comments

Whether you are at the office, lying on your bed, or enjoying a nice dinner with the family, you are most likely on your phone either sending a text message or making an email. I don't think it is something none of us can avoid at this day and age, but it's an universal reality where we simultaneously tend to forget about physical mail and letters; a piece of paper than can be a beloved treasure to someone who is incarcerated. It is how many families can communicate to their loved ones on the inside and as close as best to getting a hug for a few seconds. It can be anything from a postcard to a wrinkled receipt that is written with the words of, “I am always thinking of you.” It is what keeps many folks in jail from not losing hope, even if their existence cannot return to the outside world again. However, this form of access to maintain relationships while incarcerated is being tarnished with mail scanning programs that are being implemented across the country.

Instead of distributing physical mail, nearly every card, letter, and postcard would be scanned by the for-profit corporation Securus and delivered on tablets. The tablets currently in use at Rikers were rolled out during my time there. The device, in its clear plastic shell reading “American Prison Data Systems,” had to be checked out from the guards in the morning and turned in to them at night. It is an implicit reminder of your inmate status says the Appeal. There are other several companies that own these services: Smart Communications (also operate MailGuard in many federal prisons), Pigeonly, Textbehind (mostly known for scanning kids' drawings electronically), and Vendor. There are also two methods that mail, emails, text messages, drawings, and other forms of written/electronic greetings are scanned. Prisons can send in the physical copies of the mail to the facility and even include the envelopes that came with them or others will scan the mail already and upload it to a database where it can be viewed via tablet or kiosk that is located inside the prison. For some vendors of the digital systems, they will keep the actual physical mail on hold for certain periods of time, even 45 days for several states and dispose after that deadline has been reached.

Despite this life-changing reality of communication that has been greatly funded by the Federal Bureau of Prisons, there is still a cost to pay by many inmates that is impossible to afford in the long-term. Emailing for example, can become costly compared to original physical mail and is at limit between 1,500-6,000 characters, according to a 2016 report by PPI. There are also issues with having the time proximity to check out if you received mail digitally due to the limit of kiosks and tablets available. It seems like in another world of the past, the working correctional officer would call out the names of those who had mail sent to them to pick up, mail made the room where hope was momentarily found.

Not all states have these systems in place yet, but they seem to have funding coming in annually with unanimous support by federal agencies. The idea is that by eliminating paper mail they could close a “security loophole.” (Paper legal correspondence, however, can still be sent directly to people in prison.) This loophole that is being referred to is closing in on the difficult access of bringing in drugs that is coming in through the mail, claimed to be fentanyl as a primary one. It is in fact however that the majority of drugs that enter and are sold by prisons come from correctional officers as studies have shown by advocacy groups for prison reform. This blockage for safety mandates that further close off any exposure or connection to society will contribute to more violence and drug intake that occurs in jails. The Department of Corrections (DOC) could easily invest in more and better programming and health services to counter the boredom that drives many to drug-induced escapism and mental despair. There were a staggering 19 deaths in DOC custody last year, many from overdoses according to the Appeal.

This also impacts those of vulnerable communities whom face more disparities and discrimination while incarcerated. For many incarcerated survivors of sexual assault, talking to loved ones on the outside about their experiences and healing within a form of a letter is what makes their existence more redeeming self-internally while in a space that is isolating and traumatic. There wasn't a need to alter words and thoughts onto a piece of paper that you would know would be sent to the ones that are supporting you from afar. Now, that seems reductive with the enforcement of scanning mail in prisons and can be used against survivors with even one sentence or word on the paper.

Every moment of an incarcerated person is invaded and extracted that contributes to the dehumanization of the criminal justice system. Having physical belongings gives this agency that is not really existent in prisons, and that includes letters and mail. It can be junk mail that has cartoon images to their child's drawing that they made in school. From the crinkles of the paper to the USA Forever stamp with a unique engraving that is felt on the fingertips, it is a form of expression that they can feel an emotional connection with.

Kings County Jail has vendors that gives services of electronic messaging, mail scanning, video calling, and etc. for prisoners. Funding and implementation started in 2020, the only county in the state of California that has this mail scanning or MailGuard. Lack of prison reform in the past is being attempted to revert back as these prisons have been losing profit over the years. With over 500,000 prisoners in county jails all across the nation, it impacts a grand population that is harmed on a constant basis. Smart Communications (MailGuard) and other vendors are an overall approach of getting the profit back that these prisons are yearning for again, as they have to pay to make an email or conduct a video chat with families.

I truly believe they made this program come to life during the year of 2020 as everyone was home and prisons were on lockdown due to COVID-19. It was honestly the perfect opportunity for them to sneak that in and implement that into federal prisons especially as it would be greatly funded. The respect for a pencil and paper along with the necessity to have stamps always on hand for inmates shows how sacred physical mail is and its impact on communities affected by prisons all around. With law suits against prisons in California for prohibiting prisoners to receive physical mail to amazing organizations that invite the public to write letters to those incarcerated and might not have loved ones to communicate with, the importance of personal property for them surviving under a deadly system matters, even if it doesn't affect you.

Letter-writing to incarcerated individuals that offer workshops both online and in-person:

Survived and Punished: Survived + Punished | #FreeThemAll (

Last Prisoner Project: Last Prisoner Project – Write Letters To Prisoners

Letters for Change: Writing Letters to Inmates I United States I Letters for Change (

Supporting Documents:

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