January 23, 2023 by Akela Lacy
THE NEW YORK CITY Department of Correction wants to stop incarcerated people from receiving physical mail inside city jails. The department, known as DOC, said the proposed changes are part of an effort to increase safety in the jail system by cracking down on illegal contraband following the deaths of 19 people last year at Rikers Island, the city’s jail complex. Several of the people died from apparent drug overdoses, including at least one from fentanyl.
The main source of contraband inside city jails, though, has been corrections staff, not mail, critics of the policy change said. Instead, the move to scrap physical mail opens the door to private firms to set up surveillance systems against incarcerated people. City officials and advocates are concerned about an apparent plan to contract with a company called Securus — a leading provider of phone calling systems for prisons and jails with a controversial past — to digitize detainees’ mail and make it available to searches.
“Contractors are explicitly advertising unprecedented surveillance,” said Stephanie Krent, a staff attorney at the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, speaking about firms like Securus that specialize in prison communications. “That’s surveillance that’s going to fall most harshly on marginalized communities.”
The proposed changes follow a nationwide trend of prisons and jails moving to stop incarcerated people from receiving physical mail. Prisons in Pennsylvania stopped physical mail in 2018, and prisons in Massachusetts started sending incarcerated people photocopies of original letters. Last year, prisons in New Mexico and Florida adopted similar changes, and Texas has also limited in-person mail. There is little evidence that those changes have stopped the flow of drugs, the Vera Institute wrote in a March report: “With no evidence that these bans improve security, it’s only the for-profit contractors that stand to benefit from these arrangements…
It’s not clear that the Department of Correction has eliminated other possible ways that drugs are entering jails, Rivera, the council member for a part of downtown Manhattan, told The Intercept. “Until we can actually see that the Department of Correction has put forward an effort to eliminate all other possible variables, it just seems cruel to eliminate this one sort of tangible human connection that is made through physical mail.”
Rivera’s office has requested data from the department on plans to contract with Securus, and she said she has concerns about the possibility given the company’s history.
“We have a lot of questions as to why this administration would go that route,” Rivera said. “I don’t have any details on whether an RFP was issued” — a request for proposals that announces project bids for public contracts.
“We have had challenge after challenge in trying to secure information, data from DOC and from this administration,” Rivera said. “That lack of transparency has been incredibly frustrating.”