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