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Mail scanning: A harsh and exploitative new trend in prisons

In at least 14 states, people in state prisons are falling victim to a scan: Prisons are replacing physical mail with scanned copies, a policy that benefits private companies.

by Leah Wang, November 17, 2022

This article was updated on November 22, 2022 to reflect new information about several states and the federal Bureau of Prisons.

In recent years, many prison systems have either tried or fully implemented a policy that interferes with incarcerated people’s mail in a way we haven’t seen in our many years fighting to protect family communication behind bars: Prisons are increasingly taking incoming letters, greeting cards, and artwork, making photocopies or digital scans of them, and delivering those inferior versions to recipients. This practice of mail scanning, either performed at the prison itself or off-site using a third-party vendor, strips away the privacy and the sentimentality of mail, which is often the least expensive and most-used form of communication between incarcerated people and their loved ones.

Prison administrators claim that delivering scanned copies of mail correspondence will stem the flow of contraband — primarily, drugs — into their facilities, but there’s no solid evidence to date that mail scanning has this intended effect. (In fact, some jurisdictions have found the opposite effect with respect to drugs.) We did a policy and media scan of all 50 state prison systems and the federal prison system, and found that mail scanning is quickly becoming widespread, despite the enormous benefits of genuine mail.

Table 1: States scanning mail at all state prisons

Data was gathered via a survey of correctional departments’ websites. See the appendix table at the end of this briefing for more details.
When did mail scanning begin? Vendor doing mail scanning, if any
Arkansas August 2017 Unknown
West Virginia 2017 Pigeonly
Virginia1 April 2018 None (internal)
Pennsylvania September 2018 Smart Communications
Indiana July 2020 None (internal)
Michigan October 2020 Unknown
North Dakota July 2021 Securus
North Carolina October 2021 TextBehind
Nebraska December 2021 Unknown
Wisconsin December 2021 TextBehind
Ohio February 2022 None (internal)
New Mexico February 2022 Securus
Missouri July 2022 Securus
New York August 2022 None (internal)

We found 14 state prison systems that are scanning all incoming mail, but we’re confident that this number is an undercount, because we couldn’t verify the status of mail scanning in some other states.2 Several more states are trialing mail scanning practices in just a few of their facilities, or have correctional policies that allow mail scanning to begin at any facility, at any time.3 Many more states are likely to be scanning mail before long: Even during the course of our research, one state (Minnesota) implemented a six-month alternative mail delivery pilot — which includes mail scanning — in some of its facilities. (For details about every state’s prison mail scanning practices, see the appendix table at the bottom of this briefing.)

Mail scanning happens in locally-run jails, too; in our state-level research, we stumbled upon 15 jails4 that have banned incoming mail in favor of digitized copies. While most of the local jails we read about implemented mail scanning in 2021 or 2022, we’ve been receiving reports of jails scanning mail since 2017, and we suspect that dozens more jails across the U.S. have done away with delivering real mail.

How does mail scanning work?

As the table above shows, some prisons pay a vendor to scan mail and deliver copies to incarcerated people, while others manage the process internally.

There are two primary methods for delivering scanned mail. Some prison systems deliver printed copies of mail, often including copies of the envelope. (If there’s a limit on the number of pages that can be copied and delivered, the envelope may count toward that limit, as it does in Arkansas.) Other prison systems scan mail and upload it into a digital database, where it’s then viewable on a tablet or a shared kiosk inside a prison. Most states and third-party vendors hold onto original letters and cards for a period of time — several states have a 45-day holding period, for example — but eventually dispose of or destroy them.

The four biggest problems with scanning mail

  1. Prisons and jails often switch to scanning mail not out of any concern for safety, but at the encouragement of the same private companies that dominate the prison technology industry. For years, these companies’ strategy for securing contracts has been to offer facilities multiple services “bundled” together, such as phone calls, tablet computers, and mail scanning. Scanning mail pushes incarcerated people to use other, paid communications services provided by the companies: Compared to mail that’s delayed due to scanning procedures, or scanned incorrectly, incarcerated people and their loved ones often understandably switch to electronic messaging (which requires the purchase of digital stamps), phone calls, or video calls.

    A number of prison vendors currently bundle mail scanning with other exploitative communications “services”:

We found four third-party vendors scanning incoming mail for state prisons. These companies all offer other services as well as mail scanning, often bundled into one contract. Not listed here, prison telecom giant ViaPath Technologies (formerly Global Tel*Link, or GTL), offers a mail scanning service branded as “GettingOut,” but we didn’t find evidence of a prison system using it.
Vendor Services offered to prisons other than mail scanning
Securus5 Electronic messaging and greeting cards, video calling, other financial services
Smart Communications Electronic messaging, video calling, phone calls, “MailGuard Tracker” (for senders to track mail delivery), tablets and/or kiosks with educational materials, simplified commissary ordering
Pigeonly Electronic messaging and greeting cards, phone calls, other financial services
TextBehind Electronic messaging and greeting cards, electronic kids’ drawings
  1. Physical mail carries great sentimental value for incarcerated people, which translates into a more hopeful experience behind bars. In one incarcerated person’s words, “Under the new policy of digitizing mail [in Florida], [we] are losing the visceral experience of touching a letter or smelling perfume on an envelope.” Taking that away has real, measurable consequences for mental health, behavior, and even recidivism after release. Incarcerated people return to their mail over and over to be reminded of their support networks; scanned mail, on the other hand, is often low-quality or incomplete, lacking the same meaning. Even if contraband occasionally enters prisons through the mail, the practice of scanning all mail senselessly punishes all incarcerated people and their families for a few infractions.
cropped image showing part of Missouri DOC's webpage about their mail policies

A screenshot from the Missouri Department of Corrections website explaining that mail is important, but not welcome, in its prisons.

  1. This extreme interference with mail will have a chilling effect on correspondence, reducing the overall volume of mail sent into prisons. People who send mail to prisons don’t want their letters and artwork scanned into a searchable database and/or destroyed, two common features of mail scanning. Scanning is a needlessly complicated and costly practice that violates privacy and stifles communication, as we learned when many jails started postcard-only policies. (This effect may be desirable for prison administrators and correctional staff.)
  2. Finally, mail scanning doesn’t work to make prisons safer. In fact, early analyses in Pennsylvania6 and Missouri7 suggest that mail scanning is having little to no effect on the frequency of overdoses and drug use, the type of issues that prisons claim mail scanning will address. “Security” measures like mail scanning (as well as banning in-person visitation) distract from the reality that correctional staff are a major source of contraband in prisons, as a correctional labor union leader himself acknowledged (and as we found in a 2018 survey). Considering half of people in state prisons meet the criteria for a substance use disorder, prisons would be wise to center their budgets and efforts around drug treatment rather than cutting off a lifeline for everyone.

Mail between incarcerated people and their loved ones has long been surveilled by prison staff, but it remains one of the last bastions of communication that is not intercepted and monetized by private telecom companies. As the organization Just Detention International concluded in their 2021 letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland expressing outrage at the federal prison system’s mail scanning pilot: “Banning physical mail harms the well-being of incarcerated people, while offering no meaningful benefits.” Prisons and jails shouldn’t make families work even harder to maintain bonds; like other policies that quash communication, the recent trend toward mail scanning must end.

 

Appendix: What we know about mail scanning in state and federal prisons

Data in this table is from our November 2022 survey of state department of corrections policies and media coverage related to mail scanning. If available, we recorded information about whether mail scanning is occurring for some or all facilities, as well as how scanned mail is processed and delivered. You can see some prison and jail contracts for mail scanning in our Correctional Contracts Library. Note: Our information about Alaska, Kentucky, and Mississippi comes from people directly impacted by mail scanning policies, and not from our survey of Department of Correction websites or news coverage.

State/Jurisdiction Status of mail scanning Effective date of mail scanning policy or contract Third-party vendor Method of mail delivery Link to policy, press release, or media
Alabama No mail scanning in effect Alaska Scanning incoming personal mail at one or a few facilities Unknown Unknown Unknown
Arizona No mail scanning in effect
Arkansas Scanning incoming personal mail at all facilities Aug-17 Unknown Printed https://doc.arkansas.gov/correction/visitation-updates/mail-and-money/
California No mail scanning in effect
Colorado Scanning incoming personal mail at one or a few facilities Unclear None Printed https://cdoc.colorado.gov/resources/contact-an-inmate
Connecticut No mail scanning in effect
Delaware Scanning incoming personal mail at one or a few facilities Apr-22 Pigeonly Printed https://doc.delaware.gov/assets/documents/jtvcc_mailrollout.pdf
Federal Bureau of Prisons Scanning incoming personal mail at one or a few facilities Various None (internal) Unknown Freedom of Information Act request
Florida Scanning incoming personal mail at one or a few facilities Jan-22 Unclear Electronic (Kiosks and tablets) https://www.flrules.org/gateway/RuleNo.asp?ID=33-210.101
Georgia No mail scanning in effect
Hawaii No mail scanning in effect
Idaho No mail scanning in effect
Illinois No mail scanning in effect
Indiana Scanning incoming personal mail at all facilities Jul-20 None Printed https://www.in.gov/idoc/files/ED-20-30-Offender-Correspondence-6-16-2020.pdf
Iowa Scanning incoming personal mail at one or a few facilities Jul-22 Pigeonly Printed https://www.mississippivalleypublishing.com/daily_democrat/iowa-doc-changes-mail-delivery-to-combat-drug-smuggling/article_724e0a2e-99d5-5c1f-a750-969987911e88.html
Kansas No mail scanning in effect
Kentucky Scanning incoming personal mail at one or a few facilities Unknown Unknown Unknown
Louisiana No mail scanning in effect
Maine No mail scanning in effect
Maryland No mail scanning in effect
Massachusetts Scanning incoming personal mail at one or a few facilities Aug-18 None Printed https://www.mass.gov/doc/103-cmr-481-public-hearing-transcript/download
Michigan Scanning incoming personal mail at all facilities Oct-20 Unknown Printed https://www.cd.nm.gov/wp-content/uploads/2021/12/Inmate-Mail-Change-Memo.pdf
Minnesota Scanning incoming personal mail at one or a few facilities Oct-22 Unknown Unclear https://mn.gov/doc/family-visitor/send/how-send-mail/
Mississippi Scanning incoming personal mail at one or a few facilities Unknown Unknown Unknown
Missouri Scanning incoming personal mail at all facilities Jul-22 Securus Electronic (tablet) https://doc.mo.gov/programs/family-friends/mail
Montana* No mail scanning in effect
Nebraska Scanning incoming personal mail at all facilities Dec-21 Unknown Printed https://www.corrections.nebraska.gov/system/files/rules_reg_files/205.01_2021.pdf
Nevada No mail scanning in effect
New Hampshire No mail scanning in effect
New Jersey No mail scanning in effect
New Mexico Scanning incoming personal mail at all facilities Dec-21 Securus Printed https://www.cd.nm.gov/wp-content/uploads/2021/12/Inmate-Mail-Change-Memo.pdf
New York Scanning incoming personal mail at all facilities Aug-22 None (internal) Printed Internal memo sent to the incarcerated population and shared with Prison Policy Initiative
North Carolina Scanning incoming personal mail at all facilities Oct-21 TextBehind Printed https://www.ncdps.gov/our-organization/adult-correction/prisons/prison-facilities/offender-mail
North Dakota Scanning incoming personal mail at all facilities Jun-21 Securus Electronic (tablet) https://www.docr.nd.gov/correspondence
Ohio Mail scanning may be occurring Feb-22 None Printed https://drc.ohio.gov/Portals/0/Policies/DRC%20Policies/75-MAL-01%20(Feb%202022).pdf?ver=1NTWWbvzaLb75q9Fbv-1gw%3d%3d
Oklahoma No mail scanning in effect
Oregon No mail scanning in effect
Pennsylvania Scanning incoming personal mail at all facilities Sep-18 Smart Communications Printed https://www.cor.pa.gov/About%20Us/Documents/DOC%20Policies/803%20Inmate%20Mail%20and%20Incoming%20Publications.pdf
Rhode Island No mail scanning in effect
South Carolina No mail scanning in effect
South Dakota No mail scanning in effect
Tennessee No mail scanning in effect
Texas No mail scanning in effect
Utah No mail scanning in effect
Vermont No mail scanning in effect
Virginia Scanning incoming personal mail at all facilities Apr-17 None Printed https://vadoc.virginia.gov/family-and-friends/sending-mail/
Washington No mail scanning in effect
West Virginia Scanning incoming personal mail at all facilities 2017 Pigeonly Unclear https://reason.com/2019/11/22/west-virginia-inmates-will-be-charged-by-the-minute-to-read-e-books-on-tablets/
Wisconsin Scanning incoming personal mail at all facilities Dec-21 TextBehind Printed https://doc.wi.gov/Documents/AboutDOC/PressReleases/1111Mail%20change%20news%20release%20final.pdf
Wyoming No mail scanning in effect

See the full appendix

 

Footnotes

  1. In Virginia, mail sent to “Security Level 2 facilities and above” is photocopied; the majority of prisons in Virginia include security level 2 and above populations.  ↩

  2. For example, we’re aware that Massachusetts prisons scan incoming mail in at least some of its facilities, but we couldn’t locate a policy, contract, or other reference showing that all prison mail is subject to scanning or copying.  ↩

  3. We found that correctional policies in Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, Montana, Ohio, South Dakota, and Vermont are written in a way that allows incoming mail to be scanned if the mail meets certain criteria, or if a commissioner or equivalent identifies ongoing security risks from mail.  ↩

  4. Jails we identified doing mail scanning are: Marin County, Calif.; Mesa and Pueblo counties, Colo.; Bartholomew and Elkhart counties, Ind.; Shawnee County, Kansas; Calcasieu Parish, La.; Montgomery County, Maryland; Essex County, Mass.; Genesee, Oakland, and Jackson counties, Mich.; Medina County, Ohio; and Rock and Brown counties, Wisc. Contracts between some of these jails and private companies for mail scanning are viewable in our Correctional Contracts Library.  ↩

  5. It’s worth noting that Securus, which holds more mail scanning contracts with prison systems than any other company, did not pioneer the concept of mail scanning as a service. Securus is known for aggressively gobbling up its corporate competitors and its dominant spot in the prison phone market likely made it easier for the company to add mail scanning to its contracts.  ↩

  6. According to a 2020 article in Prison Legal News, the Pennsylvania DOC claimed that 0.7% of incoming mail was tainted with drugs in August 2018, right before mail scanning was implemented. In July 2019 (nearly a year after implementing mail scanning), 0.6% of mail was tainted with drugs, according to the DOC.  ↩

  7. An October 2022 article in the Riverfront Times reports that data requested by the organization Missouri Prison Reform shows mail scanning has had no effect on the number of drug overdoses in state prisons: In July, August and September 2022, the three months after mail scanning began, the average number of drug overdoses increased from 35 to 39.  ↩

Leah Wang is a Research Analyst at the Prison Policy Initiative. (Other articles | Full bio | Contact)

5 responses:

  1. Amanda Griffin says:

    WA state is also using this method in some of their institutions.

  2. Elijah Patterson says:

    Massachusetts DOC photocopies mail and destroys originals. They held a contract with Smart Communications, which was cancelled.

  3. Edna Yabsley says:

    Oklahoma also uses scanning I believe through a company called Prodigy…my son is currently incarcerated in county jail, Jackson County, Altus, Oklahoma…he would love to touch his letters from his kids!

  4. vicki wade says:

    FYI: Mississippi prisons have been scanning mail for about 1 year.
    MSP, for a fact.

  5. Justice for Johnny says:

    California State Prison Sacramento scans photos too
    California State Prison Sacramento does not care for inmates, their mental well-being or rehabilitation
    That prison killed my loved one 5 month ago, when we received his items all of the photos we sent through the years were missing and the little that we found were all scanned!!! Heartless humans. Hope we get justice one day

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