Nancy DeNike remembers one of the few uplifting moments during her five-year sentence at Homestead Correctional Institution in Florida’s Miami-Dade County: hearing her name announced at mail call. For her, and for other incarcerated people, it was a moment of connection to the outside world, to hold a picture of loved ones or feel the indentations of a handwritten letter. But, across the nation that tactile connection is becoming a thing of the past. On Oct. 11, Florida became the most recent in a growing number of states to ban physical routine mail. The decision, which will go into effect Nov. 29, is right in time for the holidays, when the desire and need for communication is critical for incarcerated people’s mental health.
“There’s no color in prison, there’s nothing positive,” says DeNike. “If somebody got a magazine subscription, that thing would be dog-eared because we pass it all over the dorm, it’s a big deal. It just is one more step in my mind of trying to take away anything that would bring joy in there. It’s a very sad thing.”
Under the new system, incarcerated people will have to pay $0.25 a page for black-and-white scanned printouts of their mail and $1.00 a page for color printouts, or $0.39 per email to access electronic formats available on provided tablets or kiosks. The system is operated by JPay, the prison industry’s largest financial services company,
While the Florida Department of Corrections claims the move will be beneficial for incarcerated people since the price per email is $0.16 less than the cost of a first-class stamp, the decision will only add to an already growing revenue stream for Aventiv, JPay’s parent company that controls three of the largest telecommunications, media, and money-wiring companies that profit directly off of over a million incarcerated people in over 3,500 correctional facilities across North America.
The push to ban physical letters has been ongoing since 2013 when jails began experimenting with a postcard-only policy that was deemed unconstitutional by a federal court. The Prison Policy report found that physical mail bans hurt the efforts to reduce recidivism and go against correctional best practices.
In 2020, President Donald Trump started a pilot program for mail scanning in federal prisons through the telecom company Smart Communications’ “MailGuard” service. The Biden administration has yet to reverse the program, despite criticism that the program raises privacy and surveillance concerns for incarcerated people, as well as exorbitant price gouging. Now, states like Pennsylvania and Florida have followed suit with similar mail-scanning programs in prisons.
The Florida Department of Corrections claims the push to digitize mail prevents contraband materials, including sprayed drugs, from being delivered, but there is little evidence to back this claim. In fact, reports since 2003 confirm that corrections officers are the main source of contraband in prisons.
“Contraband materials are always going to find their way in,” says Fletcher Everett, a formerly incarcerated organizer with Beyond the Bars Miami, a grassroots organization that supports people impacted by incarceration and advocates for prison reform. “It’s all about the market. Because if they did care, they wouldn’t take away the letters.”
Everett similarly recalls hearing his name called at mail time as the one time a day he could be distracted from the tension and suffering around him.
“In prison, all you have is your mail, everything else they own,” he says.
Kathie Klarreich, the executive director of Exchange for Change, a nonprofit that offers semester-long writing classes in South Florida correctional institutions, relies on the provided JPay tablets to work with her students. In her experience, the JPay tablets have frequently not worked, leaving program participants without access to the program’s materials for months at a time.
“The people inside prison are just like the people outside, but the mechanics fail and it’s terribly disappointing,” says Klarreich.
As the Department of Corrections in Florida and others across the country transition from receiving mail in person to scanning the mail on tablets, non-functioning tablets and broken kiosks would mean a complete lack of connection to the outside world.
“People may not be able to even get their mail,” says Klarreich.
Additionally, scanned mail quality can be very low resolution, making it illegible for people with visual disabilities. In one example of a scanned photo, the darkened shadows render the image unrecognizable. When a piece of paper is all an incarcerated person has to connect them to the outside world, holding the original makes all the difference.