October 24, 2021

Prison mail change moves ahead with tweaks

State corrections officials are tweaking a plan to replace hard copies of prisoners’ mail with digitized versions, after a legislative committee raised concerns about the proposal that sparked an outcry from inmates’ families and advocates.

The Department of Corrections this week published two changes to a proposed rule to address numerous issues flagged by the committee, but the department is continuing to move ahead with the switch.

Under the proposal published in May, inmates’ correspondence --- such as family photos, children’s handmade drawings and letters from spouses --- would be scanned by a private vendor and be made available digitally to prisoners. Inmates would view scanned images on communal kiosks or on personal computer tablets, which are provided without charge to all prisoners. They could also request to have correspondence printed at a cost of 10 cents per page for black-and-white copies or $1 per page for color copies.

Corrections officials argued that digitizing inmates’ mail is necessary to reduce the amount of contraband coming into the prison system, which houses about 80,000 inmates and employs 24,000 workers. Officials maintained that letters and postage stamps can be sprayed with dangerous drugs such as fentanyl or other substances.

“To increase the safety and security of inmates and staff, the department is developing a system through a third-party vendor to allow for the receipt, processing, and delivery of routine mail in correctional institutions,” the initial proposal said.

But the Legislature’s Joint Administrative Procedures Committee questioned whether the changes are justified.

Currently, inmates are allowed to receive unlimited pages of written correspondence and up to 15 pages of additional materials, such as photos.

Under the rule proposed in May, inmates could receive “correspondence that requires no more than a single first-class postage stamp.” The mail would be scanned before the inmates could see it.

In a July 6 letter to the department, Sharon Jones, the committee’s chief attorney, pointed out that first-class postage included 55-cent stamps, 75-cent stamps for irregular-sized envelopes and 95-cent stamps for three-ounce letters. Stamp prices went up Aug. 29.

“Since the USPS has a variety of single stamp denominations that would cover the cost of mailing correspondence weighing up to 13 oz., would those stamps be acceptable as long as no more than one stamp was affixed to the envelope?” Jones wrote.

Proposed changes published this week would allow prisoners to receive up to 15 pages of correspondence. “No item can be glued, taped, stapled or otherwise affixed to a page,” the changes said.

Inmates currently also are allowed to receive written greeting cards as well as up to 10 unused greeting cards, sheets of paper, envelopes and 20 stamps. Under the rule proposed in May, inmates could not receive greeting cards --- either blank or written --- or stamps. Blank paper and envelopes would also be prohibited.

But Jones said the “term ‘greeting cards’ is generic” and includes “hand-made cards, regardless of whether folded in the traditional greeting card format, or a single piece of paper.”

Under the changes published this week, inmates would be allowed to receive greeting cards that are not larger than 8 inches by 10 inches “when unfolded.”

Prison officials told the committee that they intend to ask the state’s canteen vendor to sell blank greeting cards to inmates.

The committee’s coordinator, Kenneth Plante, in a second letter to the department highlighted other concerns about the May proposal.

Plante pointed to more than a dozen messages sent to the committee from families and friends of inmates pleading for the switch to digitized mail to be scrapped.

“Correspondence received by the committee from the public regarding the proposed changes stress the importance of mail call and the ability of the inmates to physically hold letters and photographs, their only tangible, tactile connection with families and friends,” Plante wrote on July 28.

Plante asked “how the elimination of hard copies of correspondence” comports with Florida law requiring the agency to “provide a safe and humane environment for offenders and staff in which rehabilitation is possible.”

In an Aug. 20 response, Department of Corrections attorneys Philip Fowler and Jason Holman wrote that Florida law gives the agency the authority to regulate inmates’ routine mail.

The proposed digitization “is intended to prevent drugs, illegal substances and other contraband coming into institutions from routine mail,” the lawyers wrote.

Corrections officials “discovered” more than 35,000 “dangerous contraband items hidden in paper mail” over a 28-month period ending in April, including “fentanyl/oxycodone, cocaine, heroin, K2” and other drugs, as well as “cell phones, ammunition and weapons,” Fowler and Holman wrote.

“The department has an obligation to stop any threat from jeopardizing its ability to protect the lives of the public, staff,

inmates and maintain a safe, secure, and humane environment,” they added.

The department has signed an agreement with JPay, a vendor that handles kiosks and tablets, to offer a digitized “mail management” system. Costs for scanning and digitization of inmates’ correspondence, an estimated millions of pages of documents per year, will be borne by JPay, according to the contract.

While the legislative committee’s staff can raise questions about proposed regulations, the panel’s power is limited.

The plan to digitize prison mail won’t go into effect until the department responds to all of the committee’s questions, Plante told The News Service of Florida in a phone interview shortly before the changes to the proposed rule were published Tuesday.

“We get another bite at the apple. We get as many bites as we want. We will look at it to see if we have any more questions.

If we just disagree with them, there’s not much we can do except an objection,” he said.

Plante’s letter to the department also questioned how the May proposal met the agency’s objectives of providing a safe environment for inmates, staff and the public.

On Wednesday, the agency published a “correction” to the proposed rule justifying the switch to digitized mail.

The department’s “decision to digitize inmate routine mail and prohibit stamps being sent in is to prevent the introduction of illegal drugs and substances through the routine mail process. FDC has experienced multiple incidents of staff illnesses resulting from contact with fentanyl and suboxone, as well as inmate deaths and illnesses requiring emergency medical treatment from the consumption of dangerous drugs,” the correction, in part, said.

During a four-hour rule hearing in June, opponents of the proposed rule emphasized that paper correspondence is critical for families’ and inmates’ well-being and helps keep prisoners connected with their communities, which can reduce recidivism.

Critics of the switch also argued that requiring inmates to purchase cards from the canteen and pay for printouts of correspondence would add to families’ financial burdens. Tablets frequently malfunction, and repairs can take weeks, they said.

Joseph Pirez, whose wife is incarcerated, pleaded with the committee to halt the rule from taking effect.

“Why would you deny a mother the ability to hold her children’s drawings their hand made cards?” Pirez wrote in an email. “This whole experience is hard enough as it is why would you make it any harder for us?”

Tags: News Service of Florida

 

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