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Moving to ban paper mail at Rikers is wrong

Jonas Caballero spent 10 months in New York City jails and, like so many others who have been through the city’s detention system, was traumatized by the experience. Jonas was sexually assaulted multiple times by officers; after he reported the abuse, he was teased and further abused by staff. Among the officers, he was derisively called “Mr. 311.”

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

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

The ostensible purpose of mail digitization is to prevent drugs from entering the facility. Rikers has a very real problem with narcotics, reflecting a problem that affects communities across the country. Louis Molina, the DOC Commissioner, maintains that the main source of drugs it is the mail, and specifically the letters, t-shirts and even children’s postcards impregnated with fentanyl. According to Commissioner Molina, scanning the mail is the most effective way to stop the scourge of drugs.

But the facts tell a different story. Digitizing mail is becoming more popular in corrections, and at least 14 state prison systems and many dozens of local jails have contracts with Securus and other providers, supposedly to stop the flow of contraband to incarcerated people. However, there is little evidence to show that these efforts make any difference. In fact, the Missouri and New Mexico State prison systems, both Securus clients, saw their drug problem worsen after implementing mail scanning programs.

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

While the benefits of email scanning are suspect, the harms are pretty 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 reduces the risk of recidivism. While the cards will be available digitally, the tablet is not a replacement for actual cards, letters, or drawings created by loved ones.

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

If Rikers’ digitization plan is approved, the countless people who have experienced trauma within the prison system will bear the brunt. With mental health services woefully underfunded, many survivors of violence behind bars, including sexual assault, use letter writing as a way to process trauma. Mail digitization necessarily means that your mail is handled by private contractors, who scan, transmit, and then upload the mail into a searchable database. Under such conditions, people detained at Rikers are likely to be wary of communicating with loved ones, especially about something deeply personal.

It’s not too late to stop New York City from taking the path of preventing people at Rikers from receiving physical mail. On Tuesday, the Correctional Oversight Board will vote on whether to allow the 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 the DOC and the board stop the incoming mail, then they will have fallen to a new low and destroy one of the few remaining sources of hope for the people in their custody.

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

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