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Saturday May 28th

New mailing policy for incarcerated individuals raises privacy, mental health concerns

<p>A volunteer answers a book request from an incarcerated individual. Photo courtesy of Liz Schlemmer.</p>
Buy Photos A volunteer answers a book request letter from an incarcerated individual as part of the Prison Books Collective. Photo courtesy of Liz Schlemmer.

The North Carolina Department of Public Safety recently changed its inmate mailing system to a fully digital service, no longer allowing for original physical copies of mail to be received.

All mail sent to North Carolina incarcerated individuals is now processed by a Maryland-based company called TextBehind, which digitizes and copies the physical piece of mail and then destroys the original documents.

The NCDPS cited the reason for this change as an attempt to reduce contraband — primarily drugs — being smuggled into prison facilities. NCDPS communications officer Brad Deen said in an email that mailroom staff have intercepted letters and stamps soaked with drugs like fentanyl, posing a danger to both staffers and incarcerated individuals.

“Drug-soaked paper is imperceptible to sight, touch and smell,” Deen said. “Our mailroom staffs have confiscated letters, greeting cards, even kids’ artwork coated in contraband.”

According to the NCDPS, the department has seen a 50 percent drop in the number of drug use and possession-related infractions while piloting the TextBehind program in four women’s facilities over the past year.

Concern for incarcerated peoples’ mental health

Activists have spoken out against this change, saying the switch to an online system of receiving mail can make incarcerated individuals feel isolated from the world outside their facilities.

Wanda Bertram serves as the communications strategist for Prison Policy Initiative, a Massachusetts-based nonprofit that focuses on ending mass incarceration, improving conditions in U.S. prison systems and combatting for-profit communication services within prisons.

Bertram said the new North Carolina policy shows a disregard for incarcerated individuals.

“Prison officials don’t care about the mental well-being of incarcerated people,” Bertram said. “I don’t think that what prisons potentially gain by adopting this policy change is worth the sacrifice that incarcerated people and their families have to make.”

Deen said in an email that the NCDPS strongly considered the potentially isolating impact of digitizing mail, but felt the reduction of contraband and potential overdoses took precedence.

“We realize how important contact with people on the outside is, and how a sense of alienation from the world beyond prison can complicate our mission to prepare offenders for a successful, lawful reintegration into the larger society,” Deen said. “Ultimately, we decided that the more immediate safety and security threats from smuggled contraband outweigh other concerns.”

However, Bertram said there is “scant” proof that digital mailing actually reduces contraband. Though TextBehind states in a graphic on its website that use of the platform leads to a 100 percent reduction in mail-related contraband, Bertram said a significant portion of contraband is brought in by prison staff themselves.

An investigation by the Texas Tribune and the Marshall Project, published in March, found that when Texas stopped visitation and limited mailing in prison systems across the state, the presence of drugs did not decrease. Rather, the investigation found they were primarily brought in by low-paid employees in the facilities.

A similar survey conducted by Prison Policy Initiative in 2018 found that the majority of news stories about prison contraband-related arrests were for prison staffers, not visitors or those sending mail.

“So I think the question is, is the prison system going to pretend to deal with the problem of overdoses by adopting a policy that benefits a private company and makes life harder for incarcerated people and their families, or is the state going to take real steps to make sure that people who have opioid use problems in prison and out of prison are able to get the care that they need?” Bertram said.

Bertram said she believes North Carolina’s switch to TextBehind plays into a nationwide trend of prison systems instating mailing, video-calling and gift-giving services that profit private companies. In North Carolina, TextBehind makes its profit through user fees and is not paid for its services by the state.

Privacy concerns

Along with worries about potentially isolating incarcerated individuals, concerns have also been raised about the privacy issues of the new system.

Chris Reilly, a spokesperson for TextBehind, said prisons using their system have access to digital archives of all mail sent for up to seven years. Those archives can be accessed by the prison systems at any time without the need for warrants or special permissions. 

Reilly said this element can and has historically helped in investigations after a crime has occurred in a facility, allowing prison administrations and law enforcement to see if there was correspondence related to a crime.

“That is highly appreciated by the prison administrations, because if they have investigative issues to cover a crime down the road, they can always go back and find that mail almost instantaneously in the archives,” Reilly said.

In addition to archiving and storing the information for seven years, the TextBehind also digitizes its contents, making the text searchable by keywords that can also be linked to their correspondent or recipient.

Prison Books Collective, a Durham-based organization that sends free books and resources to incarcerated individuals in North Carolina and Alabama, has been a vocal opponent of the NCDPS policy change since its integration on Oct. 18.

Brandon Dorn, a volunteer for Prison Books Collective, said he believes the change feeds into a larger trend of increased surveillance and censorship for incarcerated individuals.

“There’s definitely a new trend nationwide towards this kind of digitization effort,” Dorn said. “And we see that as steps towards censorship, meaning at some point, if this continues, we’ll see a future where physical books will be banned.”

Dorn said he also worries digitization can lead to easier censorship of contents, both of books and letters. He said books already face major censorship issues in the U.S., with many prison facilities having policies that ban books about race issues.

For several years, North Carolina banned the book “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” deeming it “likely to provoke confrontation between racial groups,”according to a 2018 New York Times article. The state rescinded this ban in 2018.

“So we’re concerned with this specific policy, but we see it as a broader concerning trend towards further surveillance and control,” Dorn said.

Reilly said a unique feature of TextBehind’s system is its ability to redact certain photograph elements, sentences or other portions of letters that prison officials may deem as “not acceptable.” While the prison systems themselves arbitrate what is redacted, Reilly said the system makes it easier for prisons to remove certain elements without rejecting an entire letter or photograph.

“Typically, if a letter comes in with questionable content, the letter is rejected in its entirety," Reilly said. "With the TextBehind system, the letter can be redacted and the inmate still gets something. If you have a photograph where there’s liquor or a gun on the table, you can redact the gun, and inmates still get the rest of the photograph or the rest of the letter.”

Dorn said he worries these censorship and digitization efforts increase surveillance on not just incarcerated individuals, but also those outside prisons who communicate with them. As the TextBehind system collects data such as names and phone numbers of its smartphone app users, Dorn said he worries about the retention of data for those communicating with incarcerated individuals.

“This doesn't just affect people in prison facilities, it also affects the people that are mailing correspondences with them,” Dorn said. “If someone sends someone letters, they receive them, and they’re in prison for a year, and then they get released, their information could be retained for the next six years after that.”

Concern for incarcerated individuals

Dorn said that in discussing the policy change, he urges people to remember the outsized impact that written mail has on incarcerated individuals.

“I think people don’t really get that this is the primary way that people inside communicate with people outside,” Dorn said. “Even though day to day we may not rely on physical mail as much because we have email and phones and all that, this is still a key kind of avenue of communication for them.”

Bertram said that in addition to weighing the potentially isolating effect of this policy change with the potential reduction of overdoses, it’s important to contextualize the policy within larger issues in the prison system.

“Nobody wants anyone to suffer an overdose in prison,” Bertram said. “But an overdose in prison is the end of a long story.”

Bertram said that one of the most common contraband drugs brought into prison facilities is Suboxone, a drug used to treat opiate addictions and reduce recidivism. Suboxone is provided to prisoners in some state prison systems such as Vermont and New Hampshire, but it is not used in North Carolina.

“So, if people are indeed smuggling drugs inside to treat their own addictions, that’s not a problem that you’re going to solve by forging a partnership with a telecom corporation,” Bertram said. “You make prison life more hopeless, you make it more isolating, and you punish every single person in prison, including the ones that have never done anything wrong.”

@briandrosie

@DTHCityState | city@dailytarheel.com 

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