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
|When did mail scanning begin?||Vendor doing mail scanning, if any|
|Virginia1||April 2018||None (internal)|
|Pennsylvania||September 2018||Smart Communications|
|Indiana||July 2020||None (internal)|
|North Dakota||July 2021||Securus|
|North Carolina||October 2021||TextBehind|
|Ohio||February 2022||None (internal)|
|New Mexico||February 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
- 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”:
|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|
- 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.
A screenshot from the Missouri Department of Corrections website explaining that mail is important, but not welcome, in its prisons.
- 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.)
- 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|
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. ↩
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. ↩
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. ↩
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. ↩
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. ↩
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. ↩
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. ↩