By Jusneel Mahal
Boston University Statehouse Program
Legal advocates and family members of the incarcerated pushed for restoration of mail privileges at a Department of Correction hearing on Wednesday, saying the decision to deliver only copies of letters to prisoners violates lawyer-client confidentiality and hinders personal connections with people on the outside.
The Department of Correction began copying incoming mail to prisoners in 2018 to mitigate the flow of contraband, particularly drugs, coming into prisons. The policy was implemented in April 2021, but “due to notice concerns” about the changes the agency decided to solicit more feedback this week.
Ada Lin, a legal fellow at Prisoners’ Legal Services, said hiring a third-party vendor to substitute physical mail with an electronic, scanned copy or photocopy interferes with prisoners’ access to counsel and the confidentiality of privileged legal mail. She said copying mail creates a much greater risk that a DOC employee will inadvertently read confidential legal materials.
Elizabeth Matos, the executive director of Prisoners’ Legal Services, suggested passing along copies of a prisoner’s mail did not properly address concerns about contraband.
“The majority of illicit substances do not enter prisons this way,” Matos said in a phone interview after the hearing. “These policies disproportionately also impact BIPOC who have fewer resources to pay for mail and who are disproportionately scrutinized in mail processing.”
When Pennsylvania introduced a photocopying system in state prisons, the amount of incoming mail tainted with drugs went from 0.7 percent to 0.6 percent, according to the Harvard Prison Legal Assistance Project.
Annika Reno, a student attorney with the Harvard organization, said DOC’s decision to also remove the deadline for mail delivery (within 24 hours of collection) has caused delays ranging from a few days to two or three weeks.
Reno also said receiving personal mail is one way to maintain contact with the outside world, and that connection tends to improve post-release outcomes.
“There’s meaning in touching the same handwritten card that a loved one touched, or a drawing that their child drew for them,” said Reno.
The student attorney said an all-facility photocopying order would largely punish incarcerated people, spouses, children, pen-pals, and other loved ones who have done nothing wrong.
During the hearing, family members pleaded with DOC, stating that their loved ones should not be forced to relinquish original copies of sentimental items, such as handwritten letters, original art, or holiday cards.
Laura Walsh, whose son is currently incarcerated, said physical mail allows people to feel connected to those on the outside.
“When our son was first incarcerated, being able to receive handwritten notes, cards, letters, etc., was just hugely meaningful to him and helpful during the darkest of days,” she said. “It really does make a difference in just the ability of that person to feel warmly connected to those on the outside that really, truly love him and want to support him.”
Jonai Whitfield urged DOC officials to listen. “Please hear us out, hear us out on behalf of them,” she said. “It gives them one little grain of hope. It’s not fair for our loved ones, all of them to be penalized.”
This article originally appeared in Commonwealth Magazine.