My organization sends holiday cards to incarcerated people every year. But we can’t in Florida anymore

  • Linda McFarlane
  • December 1, 2021
  • The Miami Herald

He served more than 20 years in the Florida prison system — and every day was a battle for survival. Only 18 when he was sentenced, this man — who has asked to remain anonymous — was raped at knifepoint six months after arriving at the notorious Everglades Correctional Institution. He was transferred out of Everglades, but was sexually assaulted again in his new facility.

The assaults caused him to spiral; he spent most of his time alone, in a fog of depression. But there was a bright spot to his’ life in prison. Every holiday season, he received warm greetings through a campaign run by my organization, Just Detention International. “The kind words and colorful drawings from people on the outside reminded me that there’s some good in the world,” he said. “I don’t know that I would have made it out alive without that support.”

Right now, JDI is preparing its annual mailing of holiday cards to incarcerated survivors nationwide. But none of these cards will reach people serving time in Florida. Under a new rule, incoming prison correspondence will soon be handled by JPay, a Miramar-based private company. JPay will digitize correspondence — and then shred it. The greeting cards, drawings, photographs and letters from loved ones that are vital to incarcerated people’s mental health will only be accessible via public kiosks or personal tablets owned by the company.

Florida Department of Corrections (FDC) officials have defended the digitization program on the grounds it will make its prisons safer. But this claim is hardly persuasive. In a letter joined by JDI and other prisoner-rights organizations, the group Florida Cares pointed out that less than one half of 1% percent of mail sent to people in FDC custody contained contraband. While no one would argue that prisons shouldn’t block weapons, it’s not at all clear why digitizing all correspondence is necessary to do so. Drugs are a more insidious problem, and there is strong evidence that most of narcotics smuggled into prison arrive not through the mail but through staff.

The only winner in this arrangement is JPay. With its proprietary tablets in the hands of a captive, isolated group of people, the company is in a prime position to make a tidy profit by selling email services and other entertainment products. The people harmed the most will be those already on the margins — the indigent person who can’t afford to print their mail; the elderly lifer with limited experience using a tablet; the parent whose relationship with their child is kept strong through cards, drawings and photographs. The program will also hinder the ability of prison rape survivors to get help. Because incoming mail will be handled by an outside provider, it will be virtually impossible for advocates and loved ones to ensure that their letters to survivors stay private.

Florida isn’t the only state that’s blocking prison mail. The growing list of state agencies that digitize or photocopy all incoming correspondence includes Iowa, Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio and Pennsylvania. These programs have been an unmitigated disaster for incarcerated people — while not even delivering on their promise to stop drugs. It’s a shame that Florida didn’t heed these failures, or listen to the families of incarcerated people who opposed the new rule. Advocates are poised to continue challenging the mail restrictions in FDC prisons and anywhere else, including the Bureau of Prisons, which operates eight facilities in Florida and has its own cruel, privately run mail-scanning service.

In the meantime, we’re not going to stop sending holiday messages to people in FDC prisons — and we encourage others to join us. Florida’s new restrictions mean that we can only send messages on plain white paper. We’ll keep fighting these terrible rules, and when we win, we’ll resume sending the colorful, handwritten cards that have brought so much light and hope to incarcerated Floridians.

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