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Calling for an end to MailGuard

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Attorney General Merrick Garland
U.S. Department of Justice
950 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20530-0001

July 15, 2021

Dear Attorney General Merrick Garland,
The undersigned organizations are demanding that the Biden Administration end a federal
Bureau of Prisons (BOP) program to deprive people who they incarcerate of their ability to
receive physical mail.
BOP has contracted with a private company, Smart Communications, to pilot its MailGuard
system at two federal prisons. MailGuard converts personal mail to electronic scans that are
provided to incarcerated people either as a print out, through a personal tablet, or via a public
kiosk. Smart Communications promotes the MailGuard system as being more secure than
physical mail.
In fact, the program has a negligible impact on safety — but has devastating consequences to
incarcerated people, severely affecting their emotional well-being, weakening family ties, and
hindering their ease of reentry upon release. The mail-scanning program also undermines crucial
confidential communications, including between incarcerated survivors of sexual abuse and
outside advocates, as required by the Prison Rape Elimination Act.
The program also threatens to effectively eliminate access to mail communications for people
with certain disabilities or for people without the means to purchase tablets. In short, MailGuard
places profit-based incentives above the well-being of incarcerated people with minimal to no
security benefit. The Biden Administration must halt the MailGuard pilot program immediately
and ensure that all incarcerated people continue to receive traditional physical mail.
Eliminating physical mail is needlessly cruel, and particularly harmful for incarcerated
survivors of sexual abuse, people with a mental illness, LGBTQ people, and other at-risk
communities. Physical mail is a lifeline for people who are incarcerated. It provides a palpable
link to the outside world. Letters from family members, drawings from children, and greeting
cards from loved ones help maintain family and community connections that are critical to
incarcerated people’s ability to serve their time safely while maintaining a sense of hope for the
future. Numerous academic and public health studies have documented the positive effects of
receiving letters on incarcerated peoples’ mental health, which, in turn, leads to better reentry
outcomes. 1 Indeed, BOP itself recognizes the vital role of strong familial contacts, noting on its
1

Nancy G. La Vigne et al., “Examining the Effect of Incarceration and In-Prison Family Contact on
Prisoners’ Family Relationships,” Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice, Vol. 21 No. 4 (November, 2005);

website that it “encourages inmates to write to family, friends, and other community contacts to
maintain these ties during incarceration.” 2
Written correspondence is especially crucial for people who have endured sexual abuse behind
bars and rely on outside communication from advocates and loved ones to help them. Referring
to the first letter he received from Just Detention International, a health and human rights
organization, after being raped multiple times while in a California prison, the late Joe Booth —
a longtime survivor advocate — once said, “If you had offered me a bar of gold for that letter, I
wouldn't have traded it.” People in prison treasure the mail that they receive, and many save
letters to read again and again to remind them that there are people on the outside who are
thinking of them and who care about them.
While mail-scanning is harmful on its own, the MailGuard program could lead to the elimination
of any correspondence to people who are in solitary. BOP policy permits people held in
segregation to have full correspondence privileges, 3 but it is unclear how and if that includes
scanned personal mail. The extra procedures necessary to deliver electronic mail to a person in
segregation could eliminate access to mail outright. Because people with mental illness are much
more likely to be placed in segregation than people without a mental illness, 4 the elimination of
personal correspondence will have an even greater negative impact on them. Similarly, due to
their over-incarceration, increased likelihood of being placed in segregation, and high risk for
sexual abuse, LGBTQ people — and especially LGBTQ people of color — are
disproportionately harmed by restrictive mail policies. 5
MailGuard compromises confidential communication. Mail-scanning by third-party vendors
severely undermines confidential communications with incarcerated survivors of sexual abuse —
a cornerstone of rape crisis advocacy. Survivors need to feel comfortable sharing highly
personal, painful feelings and experiences with outside advocates to heal from abuse and develop
healthy coping skills. Many community-based rape crisis centers negotiate with corrections
agencies to ensure that their mail to survivors is delivered “in as confidential a manner as
possible,” 6 consistent with national Prison Rape Elimination Act standards. Yet it is significantly
harder to enforce these agreements when mail is processed by third-party vendors, which
“Family Relationships and the Incarcerated Individual,” Evidence-Based Professionals Society (October, 2016),
www.ebpsociety.org/blog/education/221-family-relationships-incarcerated-individual
2
“Stay in touch,” The Federal Bureau of Prisons website (accessed March 11, 2021),
www.bop.gov/inmates/communications.jsp
3
“Correspondence: § 40.16 Inmate correspondence while in segregation and holdover status,” Bureau of Prisons
Program Statement, OPI: CPD/CPB; number: 5265, April 5, 2011, www.bop.gov/policy/progstat/5265_014.pdf
4
“Study: Prisoners with mental illness much more likely to be placed in solitary confinement,” Crime and Justice
Research Alliance, March 9, 2021, www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2021-03/cajr-spw030921.php;
5
Black & Pink, Coming out of Concrete Closets: A Report on Black & Pink’s National LGBTQ Prisoner Survey,
(October 2015), www.issuelab.org/resources/23129/23129.pdf; Ilan H. Meyer, PhD, et al., Incarceration Rates and
Traits of Sexual Minorities in the United States: National Inmate Survey, 2011–2012, (American Journal of Public
Health, February 2017, Vol 107, No. 2); “Visualizing the unequal treatment of LGBTQ people in the criminal
justice system,” Prison Policy Initiative, March 2, 2021, www.prisonpolicy.org/blog/2021/03/02/lgbtq/
6
National Standards To Prevent, Detect, and Respond to Prison Rape, § 115.53, 28 CFR 115 (Department of Justice,
2012), www.federalregister.gov/d/2012-12427/p-1520

typically are not involved in negotiations and often lack an awareness of requirements around
confidential mail.
Making mail accessible only through crude scans or tablets is devastating for people with
disabilities and people with limited resources. People with certain disabilities can be
especially disadvantaged under mail-scanning programs. Incarcerated people are three times
more likely than people in the community to have a visual impairment, 7 which can make kiosk
screens and printed scans less accessible than physical material sent by advocates or loved ones
who understand their needs. While personal tablets allow for a measure of privacy, some
jurisdictions charge for them, making them out of reach for most people serving time. The high
cost of tablets creates power disparities and scarcity among incarcerated people, which allow
abuses to flourish. What’s more, many people in prison, especially the elderly, have limited
experience using tablets, and few prisons offer training.
Worse still, prison kiosks — the only option for many incarcerated people to read their mail
under MailGuard — afford little privacy; they are located in public places, such as dayrooms,
and are only accessible at certain times of day and within a set time limit. The BOP provides
virtually no accommodations for incarcerated people who are blind or who have a serious visual
impairment, such as text readers and reading tools. Typically, incarcerated people who are blind
or have a visual impairment rely on others to read their correspondence aloud to them, wherever
they can find the most privacy. If a public kiosk is their only option, many people with visual
impairments are likely to forego their mail instead of having it read to them — especially if the
correspondence is from a rape crisis advocate. The kiosks will pose the same problems for many
people with certain disabilities, including people with educational limitations and some people
who are Deaf with limited skills interpreting written English.
MailGuard incentivizes corporations to profit from incarceration. The Biden Administration
has staked out strong positions against prison privatization. But the embrace of third-party mail
vendors like Smart Communications perpetuates the very model of profit-driven incarceration
that the Administration’s position opposes. Indeed, while scans of letters may be provided for
free, the clear intention of Smart Communications’ program is to push incarcerated people, along
with their advocates and loved ones, toward exorbitantly priced paid services like email or phone
calls.
The claimed benefit of MailGuard and similar programs is that they prevent contraband
drugs from entering facilities. Certainly, corrections officials are obligated to provide a secure
environment free of contraband. But mail-scanning is a misguided approach. While incoming
letters laced with drugs may present a problem in some prisons, state-level data indicates that
mail-scanning programs have had a negligible effect on the overall rates of contraband entering
facilities. 8 If an incarcerated person is caught with drugs, it could provide a basis for thoroughly
screening or even scanning that person’s mail — but it does not provide a legitimate basis for
7

Jennifer Bronson, Ph.D., et al, Disabilities Among Prison and Jail Inmates, 2011–12 (Bureau of Justice, December
2015), www.bjs.ojp.gov/content/pub/pdf/dpji1112.pdf
8
Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, Drug Interdiction Indicators (accessed on March 11, 2021)
www.cor.pa.gov/About%20Us/Statistics/Documents/Reports/Drug-Interdiction-Indicators.pdf

punishing everyone living inside the prison. By doing away with MailGuard, BOP can spend
more money on treatment, mental health programming, and other measures that help people get
back on their feet — not on measures that exacerbate their isolation.
Banning physical mail harms the well-being of incarcerated people, while offering no
meaningful benefits. Yet despite MailGuard’s flaws, BOP is in no hurry to cancel it; in fact, the
agency has signaled that it may expand the program to additional facilities. At the same time,
state departments of correction and county jails are rolling out similar mail restrictions; if the
federal government continues to endorse MailGuard, more jurisdictions are likely to follow suit.
Supporting the program is enabling a business model wherein a private company can make a
profit by replacing the cheapest and safest form of communication available to incarcerated
people — physical mail — with a service that is inaccessible, inequitable, and that fails to meet
basic privacy requirements.
People who are incarcerated deserve better. Their loved ones, and their advocates in the
community, have long relied on mail to maintain healthy relationships and offer emotional
support. The Administration should be looking for ways to encourage such connections, rather
than adopting policies that undermine them. BOP must immediately end MailGuard and any
other policies that restrict incarcerated people’s access to their personal mail.

Sincerely,

American Friends Service Committee
BiNet USA
Boston Area Rape Crisis Center
CAN-DO Foundation
Center for American Progress
Center for Disability Rights
Coalition for Civil Freedoms
Coalition of Labor Union Women
College and Community Fellowship
CURE (Citizens United for Rehabilitation of Errants)
DC Rape Crisis Center
Defending Rights & Dissent
Electronic Frontier Foundation
Equal Justice Under Law
Equality Federation
Exchange for Change
Flikshop
Florida Cares Advocacy Group
FORGE, Inc.
Grassroots Leadership

Health in Justice Action Lab
Human Rights Defense Center
Insight Prison Project
International Alianza de Mujeres Negrx
Jesus ' Prayer Ministry
Just Detention International
Juvenile Justice Coalition
Mazzoni Center
Movement Advancement Project (MAP)
NAMI NYS
National Association of Counsel for Children
National Center for Transgender Equality
National Disability Rights Network
National Juvenile Defender Center
National Sexual Violence Resource Center
New York State Coalition Against Sexual Assault
Oasis Legal Services
Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape
Prison Policy Initiative
Students for Sensible Drug Policy
Texas Association Against Sexual Assault
Texas Criminal Justice Coalition
The Real Cost of Prisons Project
The Sentencing Project
Transgender Law Center
Transgender Resource Center of New Mexico
TransLatin@ Coalition
Valor US
Worth Rises

 

 

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