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NYC Jails Want to Ban Physical Mail, then Privatize Scanning of Digital Versions

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.”

One public official to raise the alarm about the mail policy changes proposed by the Department of Correction, along with the arrangement with Securus, is New York City Comptroller Brad Lander.

“The proposed variance also represents a large-scale violation of the privacy and civil rights of people in DOC custody,” Lander wrote in a January 6 letter. “This is of particular concern given that the tablets, scanning, and delivery services will apparently be provided, for profit, by Securus Technologies, a vendor that has repeatedly undermined the privacy and civil liberties of people in custody.”

The Department of Correction said the changes are designed for the safety of both staff and detainees. “Keeping our staff and individuals in our custody safe is paramount, and one of the key ways we can do that is by eradicating contraband in our jails,” a Department of Correction spokesperson said in a statement to The Intercept. “We have zero tolerate [sic] for anyone smuggling contraband into our facilities, and that includes our staff, contracted providers, and visitors. Scanning mail onto tablets will not only help keep drugs out of our jails, but it will also likely increase the efficiency of mail processing. We are doing all that we can to ensure that our jails are safer for all who work and live here.”

The Department of Correction did not respond to questions about whether it would contract Securus to digitize mail if the program is approved, but Danielle DeSouza, a spokesperson, pointed The Intercept to a City Council hearing where Department of Correction Commissioner Louis Molina addressed an existing contract with Securus to provide digital tablets in New York City jails, which could be used for reading digitized mail.

Jade Trombetta, a spokesperson for Securus only said the company had not and would never sell data related to its digital mail service. Trombetta later asked for more time to answer questions but then referred The Intercept to the Department of Correction.

There is ample evidence in New York that prison guards play a central role in contraband smuggling. Since 2017, more than two dozen guards have been arrested for bringing a variety of drugs into city jails after inquiries by the city’s Department of Investigation.

“Correction officers and staff are a major entry point for the smuggling of contraband into the City’s jails,” Diane Struzzi, director of communications at the Department of Investigation, said in a statement to The Intercept.

The Department of Investigation is not taking a position on the corrections department’s proposed changes to the mail system, but previous investigations by the agency have provided evidence that guards are often the source of drugs. The amount of drugs seized inside city jails spiked after New York City stopped allowing in-person jail visitors during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, The City reported in February. While some drugs were seized in mail, the bulk of drugs seized between April 2020 and May 2021 came from other sources.

“It’s not going to help the overdoses or the use of drugs in the jails, which we know is a problem.”

Prohibiting physical mail would not stop the flow of drugs into the city’s jails but would increase punishment and surveillance for incarcerated people and their loved ones, said Lucas Marquez, the associate director of civil rights and law reform at Brooklyn Defender Services, a public defense group.

“It’s not going to help the overdoses or the use of drugs in the jails, which we know is a problem,” Marquez said. “We know that most drugs come in through staff, and this is not going to have an impact on that.”

At a hearing earlier this month, the Board of Correction postponed a vote on the requested changes until its next meeting in February.

Securus, the company advocates and elected officials said would get the mail contract, has a controversial history. Under a previous contract with the Department of Correction, the company illegally recorded phone calls between incarcerated people and their lawyers.

The company has also come under fire for illegally recording privileged legal phone calls between incarcerated people and their defense attorneys in other states, as well as for upcharging incarcerated people and their loved ones for calling services.

While New York City typically holds a competitive bidding process for contracted services, there has been no request for proposal or competitive bidding process for the proposed changes to the mail system.

Elected officials in New York are already raising alarms about the potential for Securus to handle digitizing the city’s jail mail. Given the company’s history, the proposed changes “would be significantly increasing the City’s liability,” Lander, the city comptroller, wrote in his January 6 letter.

In a January 9 letter to the Department of Correction, 10 City Council members, led by Crystal Hudson and Carlina Rivera, raised their own fears. “We are concerned about the fundamentally dehumanizing effects of such a system as well as the privacy and surveillance concerns that would come with it,” the members wrote.

In addition to covering letters, the Department of Correction has also proposed a change that would limit packages received in city jails to a preapproved list of vendors like Amazon and Walmart, which would stop incarcerated people from receiving personalized care packages from loved ones or advocates.

The mail and package proposals, combined with ongoing recording of phone calls “means that nearly every interaction a family member has with a loved one who is incarcerated will be tracked and recorded,” the council members wrote. “Such data can be retained far into the future and be used against people even if they have never been charged with a crime, have been released from jail, or have had charges dismissed. These records will likely be shared with law enforcement, regardless of any stated policy. Such widespread surveillance raises serious First and Fourth Amendment concerns.”

“Essentially what the provider advertises is a dragnet that will sweep up all incoming mail and will store it.”

The Department of Correction is trying to downplay the extent of the proposed changes, said Krent, the Knight First Amendment Institute lawyer, “but essentially what the provider advertises is a dragnet that will sweep up all incoming mail and will store it.” Such a change far exceeds traditional review of mail in prisons in jails, Krent said. “And that’s really scary.”

“It will lead to a huge increase in surveillance and monitoring of anyone that’s trying to send mail into facilities,” she said. Most contractors say they’ll keep mail for at least seven years following the end of the recipient’s period of incarceration. “That’s really frightening when you think about the fact that most people who are incarcerated are there on a transient basis, especially at a place like Rikers where people are awaiting trial,” said Krent. “The mail is being stored despite the fact that neither the recipient nor the sender has been convicted of any crime.”

The changes could have a chilling effect on free speech for both incarcerated people in their loved ones — and potentially expose people to legal liabilities. Defense lawyers are concerned that Securus could sell information collected from mail or share the information with law enforcement. If the information is stored in a searchable database, it can be used more easily by law enforcement, Marquez said. “There’s definitely a big question when DOC and law enforcement have access to a database that has all this information,” he said. “These ‘guilty by association’ networks start forming.”

Securus is a commercial entity that has settled numerous lawsuits over improperly recording phone calls inside prisons and jails. “What safeguards, if any, are there for them to be using that data, to sell that data, or to otherwise share that data with law enforcement?” Marquez said. “We know from their history of recording attorney phone calls and lawsuits against them all across the county, that they don’t have safeguards, they don’t care about safeguards. They’d rather pay a settlement.”

Some advocates are concerned that if approved, the proposed changes would lead to more violence inside jails.

“The system constantly punishes people with the least power, which is incarcerated people and their loved ones, without actually taking any accountability for the Department of Correction themselves,” said Ashley Conrad, an organizer with Freedom Agenda, a member-led project that organizes with people who have been directly or indirectly impacted by Rikers Island; Conrad has a nephew who is incarcerated at Rikers. “DOC and COBA” — the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association — “are trying to paint this picture that this mail variance is going to keep our jails safer but it’s actually not,” she said. “It’s going to cause more violence. It’s inhumane, it’s going to be even more hurtful.”

Getting a handwritten letter from your daughter or wife could be the thing that keeps an incarcerated person from going into a dark mental space, Conrad said. “Say your wife sprays her perfume on a letter. It’s something to keep your mind in the right place,” she said. “People are literally in a gladiator school all day where you are fighting for your safety by all means. Any little thing can trigger you.”

“The system constantly punishes people with the least power, which is incarcerated people and their loved ones, without actually taking any accountability for the Department of Correction themselves.”

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.”

Hudson, a council member representing parts of Brooklyn, told The Intercept the proposed changes would not address the growing crisis at Rikers and called for the complex to be shut down.

“The proposed variances — stripping New Yorkers of their right to physical mail and further privatizing City services — do nothing to address the safety issues the Board of Correction is seeking to remedy. Rather than addressing the rot in their ranks, the Board is bent on further criminalizing, surveilling, and exploiting incarcerated New Yorkers and their loved ones,” Hudson said in a statement. “Our reflex has always been to punish. Now, we have the opportunity to shape the discussion in City Hall.”

There are numerous other changes the Department of Correction could make to crack down on the presence of drugs in its facilities without taking away physical mail at the further expense of the mental health and stability of incarcerated people, said Veronica Vela, a supervising attorney at the Legal Aid Society Prisoners’ Rights Project. The department, for instance, could make guards go through the same scanners that incarcerated people and their loved ones must go through during visitations.

Instead, Vela said, the department prioritized other changes that could do more harm than good. Soon after he started the job in January 2022, Molina, the Department of Correction commissioner, sought to eliminate a rule that barred staff from wearing cargo pants. The rule had been in place to stop smuggling of drugs and alcohol after an undercover city investigator was able to smuggle drugs and alcohol into a DOC facility using cargo pants. The city, however, rebuffed the request to change the rule.

“It’s a pretty telling move on his part,” Vela said, “that he comes into this department that’s in complete crisis and disarray, and he’s like, ‘You know what, I’m gonna get these officers cargo pants.’”

The post NYC Jails Want to Ban Physical Mail, then Privatize Scanning of Digital Versions appeared first on The Intercept.