Letter Bans archives

The research is clear: visitation, mail, phone, and other forms of contact between incarcerated people and their families have positive impacts for everyone — including better health, reduced recidivism, and improvement in school. Here’s a roundup of over 50 years of empirical study, and a reminder that prisons and jails often pay little more than lip service to the benefits of family contact.

by Leah Wang, December 21, 2021

To incarcerated people and their families, it’s glaringly obvious that staying in touch by any means necessary — primarily through visits, phone calls, and mail — is tremendously important and beneficial to everyone involved. Yet prisons and jails are notorious for making communication difficult or impossible. People are incarcerated far from home and visitation access is limited, phone calls are expensive and sometimes taken away as punishment, mail is censored and delayed, and video calls and emerging technologies are all too often used as an expensive (and inferior) replacement for in-person visits.

Prison- and jail-imposed barriers to family contact fly in the face of decades of social science research showing associations between family contact and outcomes including in-prison behavior, measures of health, and reconviction after release. Advocates and families fighting for better, easier communication behind bars can turn to this research, which demonstrates that encouraging family contact is not only humane, but contributes to public safety.

 
 

In-person visitation is incredibly beneficial, reducing recidivism and improving health and behavior

The positive effects of visitation have been well-known for decades — particularly when it comes to reducing recidivism. A 1972 study on visitation that followed 843 people on parole from California prisons found that those who had no visitors during their incarceration were six times more likely to be reincarcerated than people with three or more visitors. A few years later, researchers found similar results in a study of people paroled from Hawaii State Prison.

a chart people in state prisons who received visitors were less likely to return to prison after release.

Since the 1970s, the body of evidence in favor of prison visitation has only grown. In 2008, researchers found that among 7,000 people released from state prisons in Florida, each additional visit received during incarceration lowered the odds of two-year recidivism by 3.8 percent (in this study, recidivism was defined as reconviction). Findings out of Minnesota a few years later were similar: Receiving one visit per month was associated with a 0.9 percent decrease in someone’s risk of reincarceration; better yet, each unique visitor to an incarcerated person reduced the risk of re-conviction by a notable 3 percent.1 Among people who received visits during their incarceration, felony re-convictions were 13 percent lower and revocations for technical violations of parole were 25 percent lower compared to people who did not receive visits.

Visitation is also correlated with adherence to prison rules. In 2019, an Iowa researcher found that in-prison misconduct (as measured by official citations) was reduced in people who received visits at Iowa state prisons. Based on these results, one additional visit per month would reduce misconduct by a further 14 percent. “Probably as a direct result of the reduced misconducts,” the study’s author notes, “a similar increase in visitation would also reduce time served by 11 percent.”

These findings add to other recent studies linking visitation and reduced prison misconduct. The timing of visits may matter, as visiting “privileges” can swiftly be taken away as a cruel punishment: According to one study, misconduct tended to decrease in the three weeks before a visit. This may explain why more frequent visits lead to more consistent good behavior, better overall outcomes and post-release success. Families who visit, concluded Holt and Miller in the California study, are a “prime treatment agent” for incarcerated people.2

Research has also found that visitation is linked to better mental health, including reduced depressive symptoms — an important intervention for the isolated, stressful experience of incarceration. Yet even before the pandemic halted visitation, and despite these known benefits, correctional facilities have made visitation hard due to remote locations, harsh policies, and the financial incentives to replace visits with inferior video calls.

 
 

Consistent phone calls to family improve relationships

Phone calls tend to be more common than in-person visitation, as they involve fewer logistical barriers. In fact, the key studies we found reveal that 80 percent or more respondents used phone calls to contact family, far more than the number receiving visits, and sometimes more than those using mail to keep in contact.3 As with visitation, family phone calls are shown to reduce the likelihood of recidivism; more consistent and/or frequent phone calls were linked to the lowest odds of returning to prison.

A 2014 study of incarcerated women found that those who had any phone contact with a family member were less likely to be reincarcerated within the five years after their release. In fact, phone contact had a stronger effect on recidivism compared to visitation, which the study also examined.

Of course, reduced recidivism is not the only benefit. A 2020 survey of incarcerated parents showed that parent-child relationships improved when they had frequent (weekly) phone calls.

These positive findings have not gone unnoticed by senior policy makers: “Meaningful communication beyond prison walls helps to promote rehabilitation and reduce recidivism,” explained Mignon Clyburn of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in a 2015 statement on the high cost of phone calls. “In a nation as great as ours, there is no legitimate reason why anyone else should ever again be forced to make these levels of sacrifices, to stay connected.”4

Given the frequency and importance of phone calls from prisons and jails, their prohibitive cost in many jurisdictions and the loss of phone “privileges” as a punishment are both inhumane and counterproductive.

 
 

Mail correspondence is a lifeline, and taking it away only hurts families

Mail is widely understood as a major lifeline for incarcerated people, with some literature finding that it’s the most common form of family contact.The fulfilling feeling of receiving personal mail, the ability to write and read (and reread) mail at one’s own pace, and the relatively low cost of a letter mean that it’s a highly practical and cherished mode of communication, universal to people both inside and outside of prison. And while prison mail hasn’t taken center stage in academic literature, some of the studies mentioned earlier did examine mail contact as part of their methods, finding that it contributes to parent-child attachment and relationship quality.

Yet mail is another example of a service whose benefits become obvious once it’s under attack. In 2007, notoriously cruel Maricopa County, Arizona, sheriff Joe Arpaio instituted a postcard-only policy in the county jail, with sheriffs in at least 14 states following suit. These postcard-only policies severely limit parents’ and children’s ability to stay in touch. A study of incarcerated parents in Arizona cited mail as the most common mode of communication with their children, and those who used mail contact reported improved relationships with their children as compared to the year before their incarceration. Postcards also change the economic argument for mail correspondence: With their tiny physical space available for writing, we found that relaying information on a postcard is about 34 times as expensive as in a letter.

In recent years, other correctional systems have embraced another mail-restriction policy that advocates know is harmful: The telecom company Smart Communications has created “MailGuard,” a mail digitization service marketed as a response to (exaggerated) claims of contraband entering prisons through the mail. MailGuard’s scans of letters and photographs tend to be low-quality, and privacy is clearly violated as one’s mail is opened and scanned. We’ve criticized this practice and maintain that mail scanning is a poor substitute for true mail correspondence.5

 
 

Video calling and emerging technologies could enhance carceral contact if they weren’t prohibitively expensive

Sometimes billed as “video visitation,” video calling from prisons and jails allows families to connect virtually. Used effectively as a supplement, video calls could help eliminate many of the barriers that in-person visitation presents. However, we’ve argued time and time again that these calls fail to replicate the psychological experience — and therefore benefits — of in-person visitation, and should never be used as a replacement. A 2014 survey found incarcerated people in Washington State were pleased when video calling allowed family to see them, but extremely frustrated by the cost and significant technical challenges of the software. Video calling is a “double-edged sword” providing a mediocre service while lining the pockets of private corporations.

Most advocates and groups (including the American Correctional Association) agree that video calling should only supplement in-person visitation, not replace it entirely. But anecdotally, some corrections officials offer video calling only, and promote it as a safer and more efficient option to visitation. (In terms of safety, the argument that most contraband is introduced into prisons through visitation is a myth we’ve busted.)

In fact, taking away visitation can make prisons and jails less safe. For example, when in-person visits were banned at the jail in Knox County, Tennessee, in favor of video-only visitation, incarcerated people lost the opportunity to maintain healthy social connections. As a result, assaults between incarcerated people and assaults on staff increased in the months after the ban on visits was implemented. Data also show that, similar to the Iowa study mentioned earlier, disciplinary infractions in the jail increased after the ban.

Rate of assaults increased after in-person visits were eliminated in Knox County, TN Though the Knox County, Tennessee Sheriff’s Office claimed video-only visitation would be safer, the data suggest the opposite: The replacement of family visits with video calls at the Knox County Detention Facility resulted in more assaults between incarcerated people and on staff. There was also no drop in the rate of reported contraband, and there were higher levels of disciplinary infractions at the jail. See more of the devastating findings compiled by the grassroots coalition Face to Face Knox.

The Knox County research wasn’t an isolated finding: In Travis County, Texas, there was an escalation of violence and contraband after that jail switched from offering both video calls and visitation for a few years, to banning in-person visitation altogether. The change also reduced overall family contact: The number of video calls dropped dramatically compared to the average number of in-person visits that had happened at the jail before the policy change. As it turns out, the availability of both in-person visitation and video calling actually increased the average number of in-person monthly visits. And unsurprisingly, visitors who were surveyed overwhelmingly preferred in-person visitation to video calling. In 2015, the Travis County Sheriff’s Office reinstated in-person visits.

Technologies like video calling (and electronic messaging) have the potential to improve quality of life for incarcerated people and help correctional administrators run safer and more humane facilities. New research suggests that video calls may even help reduce recidivism (but only when they supplement in-person visits). Sadly, the promise of these new services is often tempered by a relentless focus on turning incarcerated people and their families into revenue streams.

 
 

Families endure tremendous hardship due to incarceration, but staying in touch can mitigate negative impacts

Many of the studies discussed here focused on the benefits of family contact for incarcerated people. But what about their families — do they gain from the time spent visiting, writing, or calling? Research says yes, family contact also provides relief to the family of an incarcerated person. This is important, because simply having an incarcerated loved one indicates poorer health and a shorter lifespan. In particular, children — the “hidden victims” of incarceration — are at increased risk for mental health problems and substance use disorders, and face worse intellectual outcomes compared to children without an incarcerated family member. (Youth can themselves be confined in detention facilities, turning parents into visitors; similar to the research explored earlier, visitation of confined youth was remarkably beneficial.6)

Research suggests that families who visited during a loved one’s incarceration show improved mental health measures and have a higher probability of remaining together after release. And a 1977 study, explained in a larger review of family contact research, found that children who had displayed concerning behavior upon their fathers’ incarceration showed improved behavior after visiting with their fathers.

The R Street Institute sums it up nicely: Supportive family relationships can promote psychological and physiological health for incarcerated people and their loved ones, at a time when everyone’s health is otherwise deteriorating. When done well, visitation can ease anxiety in children and mitigate some of the impacts on strained interpersonal relationships. Serving families at this most critical period simply makes communities healthier.

 
 

Making family contact readily available should be a no-brainer for prisons and jails

Of course, staying in touch with an incarcerated person is almost never easy. There can be great distress and tension as a family navigates its role, and the inconsistent timing and frequency of contact can be unsettling to someone whose incarceration is overly predictable and tedious, while life outside can be anything but.

Still, academic research is unified in its message that family contact during incarceration provides immense benefits, both during incarceration and the reentry period. Prisons and jails should make all types of family contact safely and equitably available, and end the practice of taking contact away as a punishment for rule violations. And with no certain access to visitation as the pandemic wears on, families and incarcerated people should receive more phone and video time, fewer fees, and better mail options in order to preserve family ties and the critical benefits that result from family contact.

Below, we’ve compiled all of the research discussed and linked above as a bibliography for our readers. And for further reading on the harmful restrictions on communication between incarcerated people and their loved ones, see our resources on visitation and our campaigns fighting for phone, mail, and visitation justice.

 
 

Bibliography

Adams, D. & J. Fischer (1976). The effects of prison residents’ community contacts on recidivism rates Paywall :(. Corrective & Social Psychiatry & Journal of Behavior Technology, Methods & Therapy, 22(4): 21-27.

Agudelo, S.V. (2013). The Impact of Family Visitation on Incarcerated
Youth’s Behavior and School Performance: Findings from the Families as Partners Project
. Vera Institute of Justice Family Justice Program.

Bales, W. D. & D. P. Mears (2008). Inmate Social Ties and the Transition to Society: Does Visitation Reduce Recidivism? Paywall :( Journal of Research in Crime and Deliquency 45(3): 287-321.

Barrick, K. Lattimore, P. K., & Visher, C. A. (2014). Reentering Women: The Impact of Social Ties on Long-Term Recidivism. The Prison Journal 94(3): 279-304.

Bertram, W. (2021). The Biden Administration must walk back the MailGuard program banning mail from home in federal prisons. Blog post. Prison Policy Initiative.

Cochran, J. C. (2012). The ties that bind or the ties that break: Examining the relationship between visitation and prisoner misconduct Paywall :(. Journal of Criminal Justice 40(5): 433-440.

Clyburn, M. (2013). Statement re: Rates for Interstate Inmate Calling Services, WC Docket 12-375. Federal Communications Commission.

De Claire, K. & L. Dixon (2015). The Effects of Prison Visits From Family Members on Prisoners’ Well-Being, Prison Rule Breaking, and Recidivism: A Review of Research Since 1991. Trauma Violence & Abuse 18(2): 1-15.

Digard, L., J. LaChance, & J. Hill (2017). Closing the Distance: The Impact of Video Visits in Washington State. Vera Institute of Justice.

Duwe, G. & V. Clark (2011). The Effects of Prisoner Visitation on Offender Recidivism. Criminal Justice Policy Review 24(3): 271-296.

Duwe, G. & S. McNeeley (2020). Just as Good as the Real Thing? The Effects of Prison Video Visitation on Recidivism. Crime & Delinquency 67(2): 1-23.

Fulcher, P. A. (2013). The Double-Edged Sword of Prison Video Visitation: Claiming to Keep Families Together While Furthering the Aims of the Prison Industrial Complex. Florida A&M Law Review 9 (1): 83-112.

Hairston, C.F. (1991). Family Ties During Imprisonment: Important to Whom and For What? Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare 18(1): 87-104.

Haverkate, D. L. & Wright, K. A. (2020). The differential effects of prison contact on parent-child relationship quality and child behavioral changes. Corrections: Policy, Practice, & Research 5: 222-244.

Holt, N. & D. Miller (1972). Explorations in Inmate-Family Relationships. Sacramento, Calif.: California Department of Corrections Research Division.

Lee, L. M. (2019). Far From Home and All Alone: The Impact of Prison Visitation on Recidivism. American Law and Economics Review 21(2): 431-481.

Mooney, E. & N. Bila (2018). The importance of supporting family connections to ensure successful re-entry. R Street Institute.

Poehlmann, J. (2005). Children’s Family Environments and Intellectual Outcomes During Maternal Incarceration Paywall :(. Journal of Marriage and Family 67(5): 1275-1285.

Renaud, J. (2014). Video Visitation: How private companies push for visits by video and families pay the price. Grassroots Leadership and Texas Criminal Justice Coalition.

Renaud, J. (2018). Who’s really bringing contraband into jails? Our 2018 survey confirms it’s staff, not visitors. Prison Policy Initiative.

Sakala, L. (2013). Return to Sender: Postcard-Only Mail Policies. Prison Policy Initiative.

Siennick, S. E. et al (2012). Here and Gone: Anticipation and Separation Effects of Prison Visits on Inmate Infractions Paywall :(. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency 50(3): 417-444.

Tahamont, S. (2011). The Effect of Visitation on Prison Misconduct [poster presentation]. IGERT Program in Politics, Economics and Psychology at University of California, Berkeley.

Wagner, P. & A. Jones (2019). State of Phone Justice. Prison Policy Initiative.

Widra, E. (2016). Travis County, Texas: A Case Study on Video Visitation. Prison Policy Initiative,

Widra, E. (2021). New data: People with incarcerated loved ones have shorter life expectancies and poorer health. Prison Policy Initiative.

See the full bibliography

 
 

Footnotes

  1. In this study, both family members and non-family members like mentors and clergy were connected to this reduced risk of recidivism.  ↩

  2. More importantly, Holt and Miller assert that “correctional systems can no longer afford to incarcerate inmates in areas so remote from their home communities as to make visiting virtually impossible.” Located in inconvenient areas for many, prisons are getting in their own way when it comes to treatment and rehabilitation.  ↩

  3. For example, in a 2020 study examining contact between children and their incarcerated female parents, researchers found that when children communicated with their parents in prison, 76% of those who used phone contact did so weekly, 45% who used mail did so weekly, and 31% who visited did so weekly.  ↩

  4. The FCC, which regulates the cost of phone calls in the United States, has made strides in capping prison and jail phone rates and shutting down abusive practices by telecom companies. (We have successfully fought for some of these changes.)  ↩

  5. While there are still many harmful policies in place, some prisons and jails have backed down when families and the courts call out these attacks on mail, such as in Portland, Oregon, in 2012 and in Santa Clara County, California, in 2015.  ↩

  6. A study of family visitation frequency in Ohio juvenile facilities found that youth who were visited by family regularly (defined as weekly) had a grade point average that was 2.1 points higher than youth who were infrequently or never visited. Additionally, behavioral incidents decreased as the overall frequency of visitation increased among the families of confined youth. The researchers note that white youth in this study had higher GPAs than nonwhite youth, and that factors beyond their control could be contributing to the calculation of GPAs of youths of different races, so they suggest that the results merit further exploration. Still, frequent family visitation did improve GPAs after controlling for race and other variables.  ↩


A now-withdrawn proposal would have made Maryland the first state to ban letters to people in state facilities.

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.


As jails around the county experiment with postcard-only policies, our new report examines jail mail standards in each state.

by Alison Walsh, May 19, 2016

As new technologies such as video visitation and electronic messaging are too often introduced as expensive and low-quality substitutes for face-to-face contact in prisons and jails, letter writing would appear to be the most cost-effective and reliable communication option for incarcerated people and their loved ones.

And letters can help incarcerated men and women stay in touch not just with family members, but also with medical caregivers, social service workers, educators, and employers, making reentry less challenging and recidivism less likely. But jails in several states are experimenting with taking away letters and requiring people to communicate via postcards. A new report released today explores the role of state agencies in regulating counterproductive policies like the banning of letters.

The approximately 3,300 jails in the United States operate under a complex system of leadership. When individual jails adopt harmful policies such as letter bans, it becomes important to know which agency is in charge of setting and enforcing best practices in county jails on a statewide level. Corey Frost of Prison Policy Initiative’s Alternative Spring Break program set out to identify the entities that regulate jail standards in every state. He also determined whether each entity’s authority is binding and what restrictions (if any) these entities place on written communication. His new report, Protecting Written Family Communications in Jails: A 50-State Survey, finds that states that acknowledge the importance of written communication are less likely to contain jails that have adopted postcard-only policies.

Frost notes that although jails in 13 states have implemented letter bans, most state agencies prohibit restrictions on the volume or length of letters an incarcerated person can receive or send. In most states, including some of the states where sheriffs have banned letters, “restricting the written communication of incarcerated people to postcards contradicts the spirit, if not the letter, of the guidelines.” His report recommends that governing bodies, from groups with statewide oversight to local sheriffs and jail administrators, set guidelines that recognize the value of written communication, ensure that incarcerated people are allowed to receive and send letters of unlimited length and volume, and permit restrictions to mail service only when warranted by legitimate safety concerns.

Protecting Written Family Communications in Jails: A 50-State Survey, is a follow-up to Prison Policy Initiative’s 2013 report, Return to Sender: Postcard-only Mail Policies in Jails, which described the value of letter correspondence for incarcerated people and detailed the harmful consequences of postcard-only restrictions.


"Major correctional associations emphasize that letter writing and family communication are key to meeting correctional safety goals."

by Leah Sakala, March 17, 2015

Cecil Whig letter to the editor thumbnail
The Maryland Cecil Daily just published my letter to the editor about why county officials should immediately cancel plans to ban letters from home in the county detention center:

Social science research is clear that one of the best ways we can help people in jail succeed when they return home is by allowing them to preserve social ties to their families and communities. My Prison Policy Initiative report, Return to Sender: Postcard-only Policies in Jails, finds that jail letter bans sever these essential ties by outlawing the affordable and confidential family communication that takes place via letter.

Major correctional associations emphasize that letter writing and family communication are key to meeting correctional safety goals. The courts and top correctional officials alike have also agreed that letters are critical lifelines for people in jail. Every single state prison uses mail security procedures that allow family letter correspondence, and the Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s national standards explicitly prohibit letter bans in facilities that hold detainees.

For more on this issue, read the full letter and check out the Prison Policy Initiative resource page on protecting jail letter correspondence.


A year and a half of hard work has brought a big win for local families.

by Leah Sakala, October 3, 2014

This week brought great news for families in Santa Barbara County, California: the local jail has decided to end its ban on all incoming letters from families and friends. Previously, people who wanted to write to incarcerated loved ones were only allowed to use postcards.

As our report found, letter bans jeopardize family ties that are key to reducing recidivism, running contrary to correctional best practices (you can also check out our short video for more info on letter bans). Furthermore, a federal court found that banning letters from home was unconstitutional.

We were deeply concerned when we learned of Santa Barbara County’s plans to institute the letter ban a year and a half ago, so we immediately organized a sign on letter with more than 50 local and national organizations urging the county to reconsider. Local community members in Santa Barbara have also been hard at work organizing the Right to Write Campaign to overturn the ban (here’s a powerful video they put together about their work).

Now, Santa Barbara has joined the growing number of counties that have decided that letter bans are a step in the wrong direction. Congratulations to the Right to Write Campaign, sign on letter participants, and everyone else whose hard work brought about this big win for families in Santa Barbara County!


Ionia County Jail in Michigan to ban letters from home starting today. What a horrible idea.

by Peter Wagner, September 28, 2014

A draconian new policy in Michigan’s Ionia County Jail that would ban letters from home is scheduled to take effect today. I just got word that my letter to the editor about this appeared in Friday’s Ionia Sentinel-Standard:

Postcard-only jail mail policy should be canceled

Dear Editor,

The Ionia County Jail’s plan to ban letters from home and instead restrict correspondence to postcards should be canceled. [“Postcards only to jail inmates“, Sept 22]

My organization’s report released last year, “Return to Sender: Postcard-only Policies in Jail,” found that banning letters interrupts the reentry process and increases the chances that people will reoffend in the future. Such policies also present a significant burden to the disproportionately low-income families of people in jail.

All major corrections professional associations know that the social science research is clear: Communication between people in jail and their families and communities should be encouraged, not stifled. No state prison bans all letters, and the Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s national standards explicitly prohibit postcard-only mail restrictions in jails that hold their detainees.

Banning letters is not just bad policy. It’s also unconstitutional. In March, a federal judge in Oregon declared a jail mail letter ban unconstitutional and ordered the county to pay $802,000 in legal fees to the publisher who brought the lawsuit.

Ionia County Sheriff’s Department should honor their commitment to public safety by canceling its postcard-only policy before it goes into effect on Sunday and does real damage.

Peter Wagner
Executive Director
Prison Policy Initiative


Santa Barbara Sheriff Bill Brown's ban on incoming letters in the county jail is breaking critical family communication.

by Leah Sakala, April 2, 2014

Youth CineMedia, a non-profit in Santa Barbara, California, just released an excellent short video about how Santa Barbara Sheriff Bill Brown’s ban on incoming letters in the county jail is breaking critical family communication:

For more on why the Santa Barbara jail letter ban trend needs to end and how you can get involved, check out the local campaign Right to Write SB. You’ll also find Prison Policy Initiative reports, news coverage, and multimedia on this issue our resource page.


A harmful new trend is sweeping through local jails as a growing number of sheriffs are banning letters from home.

by Leah Sakala, September 9, 2013

Our new video reveals that a harmful new trend is sweeping through local jails as a growing number of sheriffs ban letters from home:

Want to learn more about this disturbing trend? Check out our page on jail letter bans.


Ending the letter ban would help keep Santa Barbara's community safe and families intact.

by Leah Sakala, August 28, 2013

A new Santa Maria Times article reports that the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors are exploring a potential solution to the decades-old problem of overcrowding in the local jail. The county is considering studying the impact of allowing private investors to finance social service programs, with an eye towards reducing recidivism and therefore government expenditures.

While I certainly support the Supervisors’ creative long-term efforts to reduce recidivism, Santa Barbara County is missing a simple and more immediate opportunity to keep people from returning to jail: stop banning families from writing letters to incarcerated loved ones.

When Sheriff Brown started banning letters from home earlier this year, he apparently ignored the significant body of social science research that says that one of the most effective ways to help incarcerated people succeed when they return home is to allow them to preserve family ties. He also ignored the best practices on correspondence touted by major professional organizations such as the American Correctional association, the American Jail Association, and the American Bar Association, government bodies like Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and regulatory agencies such as the Texas Association on Jail Standards.

In March, when the Santa Barbara County letter ban was first announced, more than 50 national criminal justice and civil rights organizations submitted a letter to Sheriff Brown urging him to cancel the ban. But a child in Santa Barbara is still currently prohibited from writing a letter or sending a drawing to an incarcerated parent.

Working with Sheriff Brown to end the jail’s ban on letters from home is a simple and evidence-based step that the Board of Supervisors can take today to keep Santa Barbara’s community safe and families intact.


Successful community organizing led Sheriff John Hirokawa to cancel plans to limit correspondence to postcard only.

by Leah Sakala, August 9, 2013

San Jose paper

Great news for families in Santa Clara County, California: Sheriff John Hirokawa has scrapped a destructive plan to ban families from writing letters to loved ones in jail. As my report, “Return to Sender: Postcard-only policies in jail,” found, jail letter bans jeopardize the critical family ties that help incarcerated people succeed when they return home.

Santa Clara residents were rightly outraged when they discovered that the Sheriff was planning on banning letters from the jail. With the leadership of local media and community organizing group Silicon Valley De-Bug, they held a powerful public forum to share their concerns with the Sheriff’s Department. And, to the sheriff’s credit, he called off the ban.

Meanwhile, Santa Barbara County residents in Southern California are still fighting to overturn the letter ban in the local jail. Santa Barbara Sheriff Bill Brown would be wise to follow Santa Clara County’s example and end the letter ban that undermines public safety and drives families apart.




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