Giving Compass' Take:
- Leah Wang discusses the problems with mail scanning policies in prisons, which replace incarcerated people's real mail with digital scans.
- Who does this policy benefit and who does it harm? What are the benefits of incarcerated people receiving real mail?
- Read about the positive impacts of family contact for incarcerated people.
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In recent years, many prison systems have either tried or fully implemented a policy that interferes with incarcerated people’s mail in a way we haven’t seen in our many years fighting to protect family communication behind bars: Prisons are increasingly taking incoming letters, greeting cards, and artwork, making photocopies or digital scans of them, and delivering those inferior versions to recipients. This practice of mail scanning, either performed at the prison itself or off-site using a third-party vendor, strips away the privacy and the sentimentality of mail, which is often the least expensive and most-used form of communication between incarcerated people and their loved ones.
Prison administrators claim that delivering scanned copies of mail correspondence will stem the flow of contraband — primarily, drugs — into their facilities, but there’s no solid evidence to date that mail scanning has this intended effect. (In fact, some jurisdictions have found the opposite effect with respect to drugs.) We did a policy and media scan of all 50 state prison systems and the federal prison system, and found that mail scanning is quickly becoming widespread, despite the enormous benefits of genuine mail.
We found 14 state prison systems that are scanning all incoming mail, but we’re confident that this number is an undercount, because we couldn’t verify the status of mail scanning in some other states. Several more states are trialing mail scanning practices in just a few of their facilities, or have correctional policies that allow mail scanning to begin at any facility, at any time. Many more states are likely to be scanning mail before long: Even during the course of our research, one state (Minnesota) implemented a six-month alternative mail delivery pilot — which includes mail scanning — in some of its facilities. (For details about every state’s prison mail scanning practices, see the appendix table at the bottom of this briefing.)
Mail scanning happens in locally-run jails, too; in our state-level research, we stumbled upon 15 jails that have banned incoming mail in favor of digitized copies. While most of the local jails we read about implemented mail scanning in 2021 or 2022, we’ve been receiving reports of jails scanning mail since 2017, and we suspect that dozens more jails across the U.S. have done away with delivering real mail.
Read the full article about mail scanning in prisons by Leah Wang at Prison Policy Initiative.