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Pennsylvania’s New $4 Million Prison Mail System Brings Privacy Concerns

Rather than allow inmates to receive personal letters, drawings from their children, photographs, birthday cards, and other kinds of mail directly, the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections will use a new service that will cost taxpayers at least $376,000 a month, or well over $4 million a year.

As explained on its website, the department implemented the new policy after staff members were reportedly sickened by an unknown substance, which prompted the announcement of a statewide lockdown in August. Mail will first go through a Florida-based service called Smart Communications. The company will scan the mail and then send black and white digital copies to inmates. The original mail, including photographs, will then be held for 45 days and subsequently destroyed. The electronic mail will only be saved for seven years. Mail related to legal matters and other official documents will be forwarded to the institutions, opened in front of the inmate, copied, and the originals will be destroyed after a 15-day retention period. Inmates will not be able to keep the originals.

The department maintains that the process will help cut down on a the amount of drugs smuggled into state prisons, even documenting drug finds on various inmates. It’s also a good business opportunity for private companies seeking to contract with prisons. Smart Communications already provides limited email technology and a teleconferencing system to prisons, and now touts its mail system as completely eliminating postal mail. Bloomberg quotes Corrections Accountability Project Director Bianca Tylek, who believes digitized mail services could earn private contractors “more than $180 million annually.”

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