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Letter Bans archives

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.


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.


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.


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!


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


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.


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.


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.


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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