DOC proposing to tighten oversight of mail

Incoming letters would be photocopied or scanned

THE STATE DEPARTMENT of Correction, citing concerns about drug deliveries, is proposing to tighten oversight of incoming prison mail, including correspondence from attorneys.

During an online hearing on Friday, agency officials said they currently require all incoming mail at the state’s maximum security prison to be photocopied, and are considering extending the policy to the state’s other penal institutions. They also said they are considering scanning all incoming mail and delivering it electronically to prisoners via tablets.

“Elicit substance introduction distribution and use are major problems within the departments’ institutions,” said Heidi Handler, the regulations counsel at the Department of Correction, at the hearing.

Handler said all incoming mail at Souza Baranowski prison has been photocopied since a 2017 policy change. She noted contraband has been discovered, including in mail identified as legal paperwork. She did not cite specific cases or mention whether attorneys had been prosecuted.

“We are not aware of any instances when bona fide legal mail has been the source of illegal drugs,” said Randy Gioia, deputy chief counsel of the Committee for Public Counsel Services, the state agency in charge of indigent defense. During his testimony at the hearing, he called the DOC’s claims an “exaggerated response to a nonexistent risk.”

The idea that licensed attorneys used privileged mail “with their own letterhead” to smuggle drugs to their clients would be a complete breach of misconduct rules, Gioia said. He also said photocopying a prisoner’s mail from legal counsel would be a breach of confidentiality.

Heidi Handler, the regulations counsel at the Department of Correction testifies.

Attorneys and inmates are decrying the photocopying of incoming legal mail as unconstitutional, and they say delays caused by photocopying could make it more difficult for them to meet court deadlines. They also raised concerns about a proposal to scan incoming mail, which could lead to storage of private information.

“It clearly violates the First Amendment right of free speech, where the policy will censor the incoming mail due to an unproven event. They will be punishing the citizen and myself for the actions of someone else,” said Tony Gaskins, a prisoner at Souza, where changes have already been implemented. Gaskins also cited a 1974 California case over mail regulations that found mail censorship regulations to be unconstitutional under the First and Fourteenth Amendments.

“How do you have a written conversation with your lawyer without other people having access to that?” said Keyon Sprinkle, a former state prisoner who was wrongfully convicted. He said drugs are an issue inside prison, but in 20 years of incarceration he never heard of narcotics coming in via the mail, but instead “correctional officers bring them in.”

Keyon Sprinkle, a former state prisoner who was wrongfully convicted, testifies in a public hearing.

That claim was also echoed in written testimony by multiple inmates who have been incarcerated for over a decade. There have been instances in Massachusetts state prisons where a correctional officer has been prosecuted for doing so.

Emma Lathan, a representative from the Quincy-based Prison Book Program, which facilitates sending books to prisoners, said the emotional toll on inmates of photocopying or scanning incoming mail would be significant.

“Looking at a photocopy or reading from a tablet is just not the same as holding an original handwritten letter,” she said. “The texture and sense of a letter written by a spouse, or crayoned drawing from a child add details that help with emotional impact and memory. Even a high-quality colored copy cannot compare to holding the same piece of paper your child held.”

Cards are currently being photocopied at Souza, and would be elsewhere under the proposal. “My friend sends me these amazing letters and art, and it breaks my heart that I can’t send him something comparable in return,” testified Tim Follo, who has a friend in prison. “I wanted to maybe decorate a nice card or something and send for Christmas, and he told me to not bother, because it wouldn’t make it through.”

He said this mode of communication should also be preserved for its low price compared to phone and video calls.

Lois Ahrens, founding director of The Real Cost of Prisons Project, said she has corresponded with prisoners in Pennsylvania, where a similar system is in place, and it often means a letter that would take four or five days to deliver can take more than two weeks.

Handler said that since the Department of Correction began photocopying prisoner mail at Souza, officials have found contraband.  “Positive field tests for mail ostensibly marked as legal mail increased 84 percent,” she said, without explaining exactly what a positive test meant.

The Department of Correction did not respond to inquiries about the proposed mail regulation changes.

The proposals being considered by the Department of Correction include having the photocopying of legal mail take place in the presence of the incarcerated recipient, who could choose to have the original mail shredded in front of the inmate, stored by the facility, or returned to the sender.  A third-party company could be authorized to photocopy all non-privileged mail and any mail suspected of containing contraband would be sent offsite to another company for assessment.

The proposal to scan mail would limit scans to five pages or less per day and require fees to access them. Current 24-hour time restrictions on the delivery and posting of mail would also be lifted, replaced with a requirement that mail be delivered once a day.

Meet the Author

Sarah Betancourt

Freelance reporter, Formerly worked for CommonWealth

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a long-time Latina reporter in Massachusetts. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a breaking news reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, incarceration, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a long-time Latina reporter in Massachusetts. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a breaking news reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, incarceration, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

During testimony, Diah Utami described sending 14-page letters, which would be over the proposed page limit, to her boyfriend in a state prison. She held up a sketch that her children are hoping to send. “The only thing that makes him happy is his relationships with his loved ones,” she said.

Reps. Russell Holmes and Steve Owens listened to part of the virtual hearing and urged the DOC to consider the testimony, which was interrupted by Zoom bombers several times.