Photos of spouses, kids’ hand-colored drawings and letters stained by tears are among prison inmates’ most-cherished lifelines to the outside world.
But Florida corrections officials are moving ahead with a plan to replace prisoners’ “routine” mail with digitized versions of correspondence that would be viewed on tablet computers or communal kiosks.
The proposal has sparked an outcry among inmates’ families and advocates, who argue that preserving bonds with loved ones while prisoners are locked up dramatically increases later chances of success on the outside.
“For us, for my husband personally, physical pictures are what keep him motivated. They are what keep him going day to day,” Tatiana Sparks, whose husband is an inmate, told Department of Corrections officials during a June 11 hearing about the proposed rule. “Having a physical picture or having a physical card cannot compare to a scanned version that is printed from the kiosk.”
Sparks was among dozens of family members and other speakers who blasted the digitization plan during the online hearing. The agency received so many requests to speak against the proposed rule that officials extended the length of time to receive written public comments.
Corrections leaders say they need to digitize most incoming mail to crack down on contraband, including dangerous drugs, snaking its way into prisons.
The proposed digitization of most physical mail pieces “is based on safety concerns related to staff and the inmate population,” Department of Corrections Deputy Secretary of Institutions Richard Comerford said during the hearing.
According to Comerford, the state prison system “experienced over 35,000 items of contraband discovered in inmate routine mail” from January 2019 to April 2021.
The objects included “dangerous chemicals” soaked in paper, “sharp instruments” and “deadly narcotics such as fentanyl,” he said.
The plan would require JPay, a vendor that handles kiosks and tablets, to scan physical mail pieces and upload images to cloud storage. Inmates would pay 25 cents a page for black-and-white paper copies of scanned images and $1 a page for color printouts, Comerford said.
Legal mail, what is known as “privileged mail,” and “publications” would not be affected by the plan, according to corrections officials.
Also, inmates who do not have access to kiosks or tablets, such as those who are in close confinement, would have their mail printed at no cost, Comerford said.
Delivery of mail to inmates “will be more timely” under the digitized system, he said.
But inmates’ advocates argued that reading mail on tablet computers — which some inmates do not possess — isn’t the same as holding a piece of paper, picture or drawing that was once in the hands of a loved one.
“It’s very important to a prisoner to be able to physically touch mail that they receive from their loved ones. A picture on a screen could never replace a handmade card made by your child. The department over the years has done so much to make things harder on prisoners in the name of security,” Ryan Harris, a former inmate, told Comerford and other prison officials during the hearing. “They’ve stripped down prison life to a boring, bleak existence, and this is one of those measures. This is a horrible idea, and it needs to be aborted now.”
Children’s lives “become tangible” through letter mail, one of the speakers, George Lambert, told Comerford during the hearing.
“They are able to touch, hug, kiss and cry through letters. Their children invite them into their lives every day through the letters, and inmates constantly remind them of their love through theirs,” said Lambert, adding that he communicates regularly with his “loved one” and several other inmates through mail.
Relying solely on tablets and kiosks also would be problematic for a host of other reasons, opponents of the proposal said.
Personal tablets used by inmates frequently break, and many facilities have inadequate charging stations to keep tablets powered. Inmates often have to wait in line to access kiosks, which aren’t available at all times. Also, electronic images might not be made available to inmates when they are released, family members fear.
“To be able to touch something that was once in the hands of your most important person, it’s truly an incredible thing and it’s a way of demonstrating intimacy in a relationship,” Dawn Taylor, whose boyfriend is an inmate, said.
Corrections officials said that, while tablets have limited storage, the kiosks have unlimited storage space.
“It is also important to note the storage space for current physical mail received is not unlimited and must be stored in an inmate’s limited property space, then carried with them during any transfer or reassignment within the institution. Inmates will be able to keep the mail and photos they currently possess,” the agency said in a response to questions from The News Service of Florida.
Senate Judiciary Chairman Jeff Brandes, a St. Petersburg Republican who for years has pushed criminal-justice reforms, said corrections officials are considering the switch to digitized mail because they “can’t get a handle” on the amount of a particular type of drug, Suboxone, coming into prison facilities. Suboxone, which can be administered by placing it under people’s tongues, is a prescription medication used to treat opioid addiction.
Brandes questioned the proposed rule.
“I was a soldier in Iraq. I can tell you that the thing that lifts your spirits more than anything is getting mail. And physical mail is important. And the department knows that,” he told the News Service in a phone interview. “I think it’s a real strain for me to see all facilities go this way.”
At least one other state — Pennsylvania — and the Federal Bureau of Prisons have implemented digitized mail programs for inmates. Florida Corrections Secretary Mark Inch was director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons in 2017 and 2018.
But Innocence Project of Florida intake coordinator Adina Thompson said a digitized mail system could harm the ability of prisoners to transition to life on the outside.
“It matters that these people are able to come home and try to rebuild their lives,” Thompson told the News Service. “And by taking away this tactile connection to the outside world, that is creating more of a hardship for returning citizens.”
–Dara Kam, News Service of Florida
Nancy N. says
This is not about security. Everyone involved knows where most contraband comes into facilities and it’s not the mail. This is nothing but yet ANOTHER way for the state and Jpay to profit off of the inmates and their families. The state will no longer have to pay for the mail processing services, and to sweeten the deal, they get a cut of all the Jpay fees. It’s all gravy for the state. Meanwhile, inmate families (many of whom are financially devastated by the loss of an income from the inmate) who are already being charged gouging rates for phone calls, for financial transfers, and to buy basic necessities at the canteen for their loved ones will now have to pay even more to communicate with their loved ones – and get less for it. This is nothing but yet another way of profiting off the families. The state continually treats inmate families like cash machines, not real people struggling through difficult times in their lives. It’s outrageous and counterproductive to the goal of successfully reintegrating people into society upon release.
100% in agreement. Keep the snail mail for inmates
Everything you said is correct. Prisoners are in state custody. That word actually means something. Imagine if foster parents did these same things to children.
The whole point of prison is supposed to reduce potential crimes in the future. Our current system does nothing to reduce recidivism.
Cry me a river. If you didn’t commit crimes you wouldn’t be in prison. Deal with it!
Thank you. Random people weren’t dragged off the streets to jail. It costs taxpayers a fortune to maintain jails and the justice system to deal with the antisocials.
I pray to God none of your loved ones get sent to prison so you don’t have to feel helpless like myself and thousands of other people do. You are ignorant for this comment. You have no idea how many people are wrongfully sentenced or over sentenced for out of date sentencing laws. Look at the bigger picture, you’ll probably learn something. I thought the same way until my loved one was sent to prison over a non violent first time drug offense. The DOC has got to be the most corrupt government agency in the state of Florida.
This is just like the gun laws democrats want. Punish all for the actions of a few criminal actions. Think about it.
A few ?? there were 10 Mass shootings last weekend alone just sayin
Ya think maybe inmates should have thought first before breaking the law and not gotten themselves into prison in the first place. Why should we kowtow to any prisoner who is property of the state? They relinquished their rights to a lot of what the law abiding person enjoys as soon as they break the law and end up in prison. If you want to receive mail the regular way then STAY out of prison. Digital mail is what I rely on 99.99% of the time. So there is absolutely NO reason why inmates cannot adapt to the same technology.
Not all inmates are guilty of crimes. There are many innocent people in jail
There are no inmates awaiting trial in state prisons. They have all been adjudicated and sentenced. The only qualifier is that some cases are on appeal, which occasionally, but rarely, reverse trail-court sentences.
Not all inmates in prison that were found guilty in trials are guilty. My point being that the justice system in flawed and innocent people are sent away to prison all the time. Do those innocent people that slipped threw the cracks and are having to spend time in prison also not worthy of humane treatment?
Pierre Tristam says
No argument there, and in that context, “flawed” is, objectively and factually, an understatement. But humane treatment of prisoners should be universal regardless. There simply is no excuse to the contrary unless one is willing to concede to being constitutionally dense and a sadist–an admittedly very large constituency.
Pierre Tristam says
This “don’t do the crime” reasoning isn’t surprising in a state where the Eight Amendment is spat on with as much ferocity as the Second is fellated. But it’s also ridiculously flawed, since it justifies the infliction of any cruelty on inmates whatsoever: why bother cook for them? Processed food pellets would be fine. Why waste electricity other than for locking their cells? No AC, let them roast. Why limit solitary just to death row? Screw them all with solitary. After all good old Clarence Thomas, who must enjoy touring museums of Medieval torture when he’s not sniffing the can at the Heritage Foundation, actually dissented in 2002 from a decision banning the chaining of Alabama prisoners to hitching posts and abandoning them for hours without food, water or bathroom breaks. Thomas called it “a legitimate penological purpose.” Ironic how the same year, before sadists posing as White House lawyers had the better of him, “President Bush ordered that the prisoners at Guantánamo be treated ‘humanely and, to the extent appropriate with military necessity, in a manner consistent with’ the Geneva Conventions” (as the Times reported in 2004, when it uncovered a Red Cross report revealing the sham of the claim). Anyway, if as the Convention states a couple of letters and a few cards a month are good enough for “the worst of the worst,” to quote Darth Vader, it’s certainly good enough for our own Thomas playthings.
Pierre, you may feel differently if you were ever on the receiving end of a violent crime. You may want to spend a week or 2 in the system and see just how evil some of these prisoners are.
Pierre Tristam says
Neither here nor there. If they’re that evil, then no reasonable standard of incarceration applies, and let’s admit we’re all fine with cherrypicking which constitutional amendments apply and which don’t.
Dan the Man says
Food Pellets are a good way to get ALL your daily vitamin requirements. And WHY is there AC in prisons ? They should have ONLY ceiling fans, that’s all I have. I don’t use AC here in Florida. Get use to the Hot weather or move back to your northern crap holes cities. AC pollutes the atmosphere and destroys the ozone layers.
Good for you but No Thanks
Nancy N. says
There actually isn’t A/C in the vast majority of FL prisons. There also isn’t access to things like ice, cold drinks, fans, and window ventilation (you know, all the things I’m sure you use to help stay cool without A/C).
Oh and the “northern crap hole city” I came from has a median household income nearly double that of Palm Coast…so if it’s a crap hole, what does that make Palm Coast?
I worked in the prison system for a short time. Contraband came in in many unique ways hidden in the mail. The prisoner’s were constantly testing the screening system to get drugs in. I saw prisoners flipping out high on drugs. Not all but enough. They are in prison, not summer camp. They have no one to blame but themselves.
NANCY KASTEN says
This is totally ridiculous. The ones that do not have contraband sent in well outweighs the ones that don’t. This needs to stop. The tablets are a joke, they drop photos, lose emails, and most of the time takes longer for the inmates to receive than snail mail does. This is inhumane. These letters and photos in snail mail, encourage our loved ones to do better and know they are loved. The tablets do not do the same. Also when they need papers from home to work on their cases, we won’t be allowed to send them to our loved ones. This is a crime in itself.
Mary Fusco says
You act like criminals are in college. LOL. If your “loved ones” can’t do the time, don’t do the crime. Easy peasy. People are not kidnapped off the streets and thrown in jail. Funny thing, when my son was in the Navy, in the mid 80’s, he was on a war ship in the Persian Gulf. There were no cell phones, tablets, computers, emails, etc. He was gone for 6-9 months at a time. When he got a chance to call home, he had to stand on line for hours to speak for a few minutes. He was protecting our Country. Cry me a river for criminals who are languishing with air conditioning, 3 squares, gyms, libraries, computers, etc.
Jason B says
Even if it were Donald Trump in prison, I would still want him to receive letters and photos, but I would draw the line at conjugal visits.
And the department of corrections has no issue giving a murderer 10 yrs… meanwhile a 17 yr old with a robbery charge is faced with 30 yrs!!! You idiots kill me. Fdoc is getting free labor from the prisoners, abusing them physically, sexually, emotionally and I guess in your book that’s ok??