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Maryland proposes – and promptly withdraws – plan to ban letters to people incarcerated in the state’s prisons

by Alison Walsh, July 20, 2016

You may have missed it, but for a short time in Maryland, an alarming policy was on the table. The Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services proposed the first total ban on letters to incarcerated people in state facilities. Claiming that the prison system needed to stop the spread of drugs hidden in envelopes, prison officials recommended restricting all correspondence to postcards. Previously, only county jails had ever introduced such a shortsighted and counterproductive policy.

We documented the many reasons why postcards are not an acceptable substitute for letters from home in our 2013 report, Return to Sender: Postcard-only mail policies in jail. Families limited to postcards have no way to shield confidential information or attach drawings and photographs. Plus, regular correspondence by postcard is much less cost-effective. We calculated that each word written on a postcard is about 34 times more expensive to send than a word written on letter-sized paper.

Fortunately, the ACLU of Maryland responded swiftly. The civil liberties organization pointed out that a letter ban would have consequences far beyond the state’s prison walls.

The implications of such a sweeping regulation cannot be overstated. The policy you propose would affect not only the 21,000-plus people in your custody, but also the tens of thousands of Marylanders who are connected with them. The scheme would forbid a pastor from writing to a parishioner who is now incarcerated—indeed, it would forbid letters from organizations that provide all kinds of supportive services to those who are inside. The proposal would rob families of one of the most profoundly significant forms of communication in our society. Under the new scheme, an ailing mother could not send her son a letter for him to hold onto after she is gone. A teen could not write her mom to tell her the things she can’t say in a visit.

The negative publicity worked. Shortly after the ACLU of Maryland issued their response, the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services withdrew the request.

The Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services is withdrawing its request for limiting mail to postcards for offenders in our facilities.

Secretary Stephen Moyer will form a focus group to determine the best options for eliminating contraband coming into our facilities through the mail.

The group will also research the most effective procedures to ensure the safety of our staff and those in our custody.

The withdrawal is a positive development, but, as the ACLU of Maryland points out, the proposal never should have been under serious consideration.

We are glad that the Department of Public Safety and Corrections is dropping an extreme proposal to ban incoming personal letters. But this should never have come up in the first place. The proposed ban comes on top of other changes that have harmed families’ ability to be in touch, like visitation rules. We are urging the Department to ensure that it is working in ongoing and meaningful partnership with families who can best advise the Department about how to ensure efforts to address security concerns do the least damage possible to families. The Department’s proposed workgroup is an excellent place to start.

For more on the now-defunct proposal, including the perspectives of formerly incarcerated people and their families, see the ACLU of Maryland’s full press release.

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Events

  • November 29, 2017:
    Legal Director Aleks Kajstura will be in DC speaking at the congressional Democratic Women’s Working Group dinner about women’s mass incarceration.

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