Move to ban paper mail on Rikers is wrong

  • Linda McFarlane
  • March 14, 2023
  • New York Daily News

Jonas Caballero spent 10 months in New York City jails and, like so many who have passed through the city’s detention system, he was traumatized by the experience. Jonas was sexually assaulted multiple times by officers; after he reported the abuse, staff subjected him to taunts and further abuse. Among officers, he was mockingly referred to as “Mr. 311.”

With nowhere to turn, Jonas relied on a form of communication that is a source of comfort to countless incarcerated people: the mail. In the city jails system and later while in prison, Jonas used letters to communicate with friends and family, who aided his efforts to get justice for his mistreatment and offered a safe outlet for him to process the trauma of life behind bars.

But the days of physical mail for incarcerated New Yorkers may be numbered. Under a proposal put forward last year by the city Department of Correction, the city would hire the private company Securus to scan and digitize incoming mail on Rikers Island. The only way for people to read their correspondence would be using Securus’ proprietary tablets; the original letter or card would be returned to sender if the postage is paid or it will be destroyed. Attorney mail would be exempt, but all other mail would be processed by Securus, including cards from children and letters from rape crisis counselors.

The ostensible purpose of mail digitization is to stop drugs from entering the facility. Rikers has a very real problem with narcotics, reflecting a problem that is plaguing communities nationwide. Louis Molina, the DOC commissioner, argues that the primary source of drugs is the mail, and specifically fentanyl-laced letters, T-shirts, and even children’s cards. Per Commissioner Molina, mail-scanning is the most effective way to stop the drug scourge.

But the facts tell a different story. Mail digitization is increasingly popular in corrections, and at least 14 state prison systems and many dozens of local jails have contracts with Securus and other vendors, supposedly to stem the flow of contraband to incarcerated people. Yet there’s little evidence to show that these efforts make any difference. Indeed, the Missouri and New Mexico state prison systems — both Securus clients — saw their drug problem grow worse after implementing mail scanning programs.

The poor performance of scan-and-shred programs has made little impression on Molina. To hear him describe it, the threat posed by fentanyl is so extreme that collective punishment is justified. But the claims about fentanyl’s ability to sicken people upon casual contact have been widely debunked. While the drug is certainly dangerous and has no place in prisons and jails, it’s not the case that simply coming into contact with it — as many law enforcement officers must do on the job — can severely harm or kill you.

While the benefits of mail scanning are suspect, the harms are quite clear. Mail is a staple of life behind bars — a palpable link between an incarcerated person and the outside world. Study after study has shown that maintaining ties with loved ones lowers the risk of recidivism. While the letters will be available digitally, the tablet is no substitute for holding the actual cards, letters, or drawings created by loved ones.

Many incarcerated people pin letters and drawings to the walls of their cell, or keep them under their pillows; and when they are released, those items are often the only things they take with them.

If the Rikers digitization plan is approved, the countless people who have endured trauma inside the jail system will be affected the most. With mental health services woefully underfunded, many survivors of violence behind bars, including sexual abuse, use letter-writing as a way to process trauma. Mail digitization necessarily involves having your mail handled by private contractors, who scan, transmit, and then upload correspondence into a searchable database. Under such conditions, people detained at Rikers are likely to be wary of corresponding with loved ones — especially about anything deeply personal.

It’s not too late to prevent New York City from going down the path of stopping people at Rikers from getting physical mail. On Tuesday, the oversight Board of Correction is set to vote on whether to allow DOC’s contract with Securus to move forward. The board must do the right thing and block the plan. Rikers Island is already a stain on the city. If DOC and the board stop incoming mail, then they will have stooped to a new low — and will destroy one of the few sources of hope that the people in their custody have left.

McFarlane is the executive director of Just Detention International, a health and human rights nonprofit that seeks to make prisons and jails safer.

Originally posted here