NYC Comptroller Brad Lander, February 14, 2023

The Board of Correction will vote on February 14 to block detained people from receiving physical mail from loved ones.

New York, NY – New York City Comptroller Brad Lander, loved ones of people in custody on Rikers Island, people previously detained on Rikers, and advocates called out the Department of Correction (DOC) for attempting to replace physical mail with images scanned onto tablets. The Board of Correction (BOC) will hear public comments about the proposal to deny physical mail to people in custody on Valentine’s Day. The livestream video will be available here, and official photos will be available on the Comptroller’s Flickr account.

DOC requested continuing variances to Minimum Standard§§ 1-11(e)(1)(i) and 1-12(a) on November 14, 2022, citing debunked safety concerns over fentanyl-soaked mail. If the Board of Correction approves, the proposed variances would deny people in custody access to correspondence from their loved ones, raising serious privacy and civil rights concerns, and further fraying the social bonds that are necessary for people’s mental health. The plan to scan mail onto tablets relies on technology provided by Securus, a private contractor with a history of severe privacy and contract breaches.

“A Valentine’s card, handwritten letter, child’s drawing, or family picture bring us joy and remind us of what really matters — yet DOC is attempting to ban these physical reminders of love for people awaiting trial,” said New York City Comptroller Brad Lander. “Rewarding a vendor with a track record of privacy violations risks further intrusion into private communications. Scanned images onto a tablet cannot replace tangible and deeply personal mail that serves as a precious connection to the outside world and helps people stay grounded during difficult times.”

“When I was inside, receiving that mail from my loved ones was truly a lifeline. There are no words to describe how important it was when I was far away from my family to be able to hold a piece of mail they sent me — decades later I still have some of those cards. This mail variance is just a band-aid, instead of addressing the real issues. People inside are not getting proper care, and they’re not getting programs, so they are desperate for something to fill their time. DOC needs to address that issue, not put one more barrier between incarcerated people and their loved ones,” said Marco Barrios, a member of Freedom Agenda and Criminal Justice Advocate with the Mental Health Project Urban Justice Center.

“The changes that this variance would bring will help no one, it would honestly be quite hurtful to my family and me. Instead, it will continue to punish incarcerated people and their loved the ones, the way this system always has. I assure you that mail variance or not, drugs will stay make their way onto Torture Island through the officers, as they mostly do,” said Ashley Conrad, Senior Community Organizer with Freedom Agenda, and family member of someone currently detained at Rikers.

“Opening a letter from a loved one is a lifesaving human right,” said Tahanee Dunn, Project Director of the Prisoners’ Rights Project at The Bronx Defenders. “For DOC to try to strip people of this right is not only inhumane but also a deflection, a distraction from the Department’s own internal turmoil, where the resulting pain and suffering once again falls on those in their custody. We urge the Board to reject these variances request outright, as it does not make anyone safer but does jeopardize the mental wellness of those in custody, denying them a vital connection to their community and hope for the future.”

“Physical mail is a crucial lifeline and connection to community and loved ones outside of jail, and experts suggest that these kinds of connections help promote successful re-entry and reduce recidivism. Drugs have no place in jail and multiple investigations have shown that a significant amount of contraband enters Rikers Island and City jails through Department of Correction officers and staff. Instead of taking away a stabilizing connection from people who are already not being afforded the minimum standards of treatment in New York City jails, the Department should implement better security measures to hold their own staff accountable and ensure provision of medical care and treatment programs to help people in their custody manage substance use disorders. I am firmly opposed to the Department of Correction’s variance request to prohibit physical mail delivery under the guise of stopping drugs from entering the jails when they have not provided the necessary underlying data to support this action. Any investment or policy decision made by DOC must actually stop the flow of drugs into jails,” said Council Member Carlina Rivera.

“This scanning idea is outrageous. It’s slow, unreliable, expensive, nosey, and you’re not supposed to tamper with the mail. My understanding is most of the contraband comes in with DOC officers and staff anyway. DOC can use other means to determine if drugs are coming through the mail without paying a prison profiteering vendor. I’m furious about this, it is ridiculous,” said Council Member Gale Brewer.

“DOC has claimed that this latest change is to ensure safety at Rikers Island, but this is about control. We know for a fact that more drugs and contraband are brought in by DOC employees then somehow smuggled into handwritten letters from loved ones,” said Council Member Shahana Hanif. “Rikers Island is unsafe because of a culture of corruption not because of letters. I urge the Board of Corrections to reject this misguided and ill advised attempt to further isolate people from their loved ones.”

“The proposed variances do nothing to address the issues the Board of Correction is seeking to remedy. Rather than addressing the rot in their ranks, the Board is debating changes to strip incarcerated New Yorkers of their rights and open the door for private enterprise to take advantage of those who are incarcerated and their loved ones,” said Council Member Crystal Hudson. “While the City has a responsibility to ensure safety in our jails, preventing incarcerated folks from being able to read letters handwritten by their loved ones does not achieve that goal. Further criminalization and surveillance of those who are incarcerated, as well as breaches of the First and Fourth Amendments, are ill-conceived attempts that are proven to have no effect on overall safety in jails and prisons. I urge the Board of Correction to reject these changes, now and in the future.”

On January 6, 2023, Comptroller Lander sent a letter outlining his concerns about these variances to the Board of Correction members. In the letter, Comptroller Lander concludes, “The proposed variance would not contribute to greater safety for incarcerated people or for DOC staff. It would, however, further the ‘constant disruption of even the most basic services’ that the [Federal] Monitor identifies. It would open the door to unwarranted surveillance that infringes upon the rights of those in custody. And it would reward a private, for-profit contractor with a history of privacy violations, without an appropriate competitive bidding process.”

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