By Suzy Subways
From PHN Issue 38, Fall 2018
On September 5th, after a 12-day lockdown of all 25 prisons in the state, the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (DOC) made drastic permanent changes to mail and visits. The DOC claimed that dozens of guards had been exposed to synthetic drugs, and that the lockdown and new restrictions were intended to protect them. But no tests showed that the drugs were in the sick officers’ bodies. Toxicology experts and the medical directors of the hospital emergency rooms where the guards were taken told the Philadelphia Inquirer that the guards’ symptoms were consistent with anxiety. They called it a “mass psychogenic illness” — anxiety symptoms that can happen when groups of people share a contagious fear of being exposed to something, even though they haven’t been. No mailroom staff reported getting sick.
Governor Tom Wolf and DOC Secretary John Wetzel announced a contract with a private company for $15 million to tighten security. Because the DOC considered it an “emergency,” they could sign this contract without hearing competitive bids from other companies or any oversight from the state legislature. All mail for people in Pennsylvania prisons must now be sent to a private company in Florida called Smart Communications. This company scans the mail electronically and emails it to the prison, which prints a copy for the recipient. The originals — letters, greeting cards, photos, children’s art — are destroyed.
The electronic version of all mail is converted to searchable text and kept in a database. This means the DOC can search for key words to find information about people in prison and their loved ones. As the Smart Communications website states, “Converting your inmate postal mail to electronic media, allows for a searchable database of inmate mail and opens a whole new field of intelligence for your agency…. Eliminate the last form of undocumented, uncontrolled communication.”
Legal mail is photocopied in front of the recipient, who is given the copy. But the prison keeps the original for 45 days. Many lawyers have stopped sending mail to their clients because of the new policy, which has delayed people’s ability to prepare for court and caused them to miss court deadlines. The Pennsylvania ACLU, Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project, Abolitionist Law Center and Amistad Law Project have filed a federal First Amendment lawsuit against the policy.
Visitors now go through body scanners and cannot access food or water during the visit, due to a three-month ban on vending machines. Major Tillery, a currently incarcerated writer, reports, “Not being able to get vending food and drink prevents visits from children, older people, people with medical problems. That is the point. This is an attack on the social values of Black families.” This echoes a growing national trend of prison systems replacing in-person visits with video visits.
At first, the new policy required all books to be bought directly from the DOC as expensive e-books and read on tablets that cost $155. All of the restrictions hurt people in solitary confinement the most. Loved ones of people in Pennsylvania prisons have organized several days of phone calls to elected officials and the DOC secretary to object to the restrictions. Currently incarcerated activists have written op-eds in local newspapers, and activists outside have organized several demonstrations in Philadelphia and Harrisburg. In response to this pressure from the community, the DOC reversed its book policy and will now allow books sent by publishers, bookstores and free book donation programs. And publications such as Prison Health News will not be scanned and monitored electronically, but they must be sent to a security processing center in central Pennsylvania, which will forward them to subscribers.
More than half of the $80 billion the United States spends every year on prisons goes to private companies. Secretary Wetzel is president of the Association of State Correctional Administrators, which holds conferences that private contractors pay to attend so they can lobby elected officials for contracts. These contracts for phone services, tablet computers, video visitation, email, e-books, and more also mean kickbacks for the DOC. The Human Rights Defense Center obtained the Pennsylvania DOC’s contracts for mail processing and tablets from Smart Communications, GTL, and JPay. In February, the amount of money the state receives every month as a percentage of what incarcerated people pay for things like e-books, music, games, and email was reduced by almost a third. The DOC would only get a higher percentage if people had to buy more products for their tablets — for example, if other options for communication were limited.
Pennsylvania’s new restrictions also please the PA State Corrections Officers Association, which has been unhappy about reforms to solitary confinement. Activists in prison and outside have protested for human rights and won some victories, but the security departments of the DOC seek to re-assert their control. Governor Wolf supported these repressive mail policies, in part, to win the support of the guards’ union while running for re-election this November.
Pennsylvania is the first state to dramatically limit mail in prisons, but most states eventually want to eliminate postal mail entirely. It’s important to keep track of your prison system’s policies and when they might change. Be forewarned if an emergency situation is declared — this may be a way to put dramatic changes in place without oversight. But remember, these changes can be reversed.