As Texas Prisons Move to Digitize Mail, Advocates Say Family Bonds Grow Weaker

Five years since her release, Maggie Luna has kept the mail she received from family during her two stints in Texas state prisons: drawings from her daughter, a letter from her niece, prayer cards from her mother. “It was something that I was able to open up while I was in prison and just be able to escape for a minute,” she says. But under a new program launching in some Texas facilities this week, prison mail is about to become less personal, as prisoners will no longer be allowed to receive any physical mail from loved ones.

The kinds of keepsakes Luna once received while in prison will now be scanned, so that the recipients in most cases will be able to view them on an electronic tablet. Some prisoners will only get black-and-white photocopies of their mail. Either way, Texas prisoners will no longer be able to hold the original pieces of mail in their hands or take them with them upon their release. While prison officials say the move is meant to help keep illegal substances and items out of prisons, criminal justice advocates say it will further disconnect prisoners from the family and friends trying to help them make it through their sentence and rebuild their lives.

“You want to set us up to be successful but you’re taking every piece of humanity away from us,” says Luna, who is now a policy analyst and community outreach coordinator for the Texas Center for Justice and Equity. “So if you’re treated like an animal and constantly told that you are not even worth the paper in an envelope, it’s just another barrier.”

Texas is just the latest state to move toward digital mail for its prisoners. As of 2022, at least 14 state prison systems scan all incoming mail, according to the Prison Policy Initiative, a national research and advocacy organization focused on mass incarceration. Many states adopted the restrictions amid the pandemic, claiming it would crack down on the flow of contraband. Texas is adopting the policy now for the same reason.

“While no single effort can completely stop the transmission of dangerous contraband, we feel that every measure we can take to improve health and safety in our facilities is worth adopting,” reads a statement from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice released ahead of the rollout. Bryan Collier, the department’s executive director, said earlier this year that contraband in the state’s prison rose 100% over the last five years, with “dangerous drugs” rising 492%.

To create their new digital mail system, Texas has contracted with Securus, which provides communication services for incarcerated people and already provides electronic tablets for prisoners in the state. Prisoners can use the devices for two free weekly phone calls and a free monthly video call as well as educational content and music.

Securus also handles mail scanning for prisons in North Dakota, New Mexico and Missouri. When asked how offering digital scans of prisoner mail helps stem the flow of contraband and whether any research supports its ability to do so, Securus directed TIME to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, which did not respond to a request for comment.

Many criminal justice advocates point out that contraband often reaches prisoners through a facility’s staff. PPI says there is no evidence so far that mail scanning has helped reduce contraband in prisons. The organization points to research that emphasizes the importance of prisoners maintaining strong familial connections. “We know from decades of research that having a constant connection with your loved ones on the outside is a positive factor in terms of reducing people’s recidivism rate. Some studies link visitation with reduced prison misconduct. “It improves their mental health, their physical health and their engagement in prison programming,” says Wanda Bertram, spokesperson for the Prison Policy Initiative. Almost half of the people in state prisons nationwide are parents of minors—and 70% report sending their children physical mail, according to Justice Bureau data.

The quality of the scans Texas provides to prisoners remains to be seen. But companies scanning mail across the country have come under fire for doing a bad job: cutting off huge margins, failing to scan the second side of a double-sided page or providing blurry images.

In a state as big as Texas, prisoners often end up being located far away from their loved ones. In the absence of easy visitation, mail and phone calls are often key to maintaining a strong connection.

“I don’t think folks understand how important physical mail really is,” says Savannah Eldridge, the board chair for the Texas Inmate Families Association. She has a brother and stepson currently behind bars in the facilities where the new rules are already in effect. Both of them have told her how valuable it was to their mental health to hear their name called when mail was being distributed, a practice that no longer happens when digital copies of mail are sent straight to their tablets.

Most prisoners in Texas have access to an electronic tablet; they can view a color scan of the correspondence. But those without a tablet will only receive black and white copies, according to state officials.

For some, the resources and money going to digitizing physical mail reflects misplaced priorities, especially as Texas prisons lack air conditioning, while the state has endured a heatwave this summer that has brought about an unusually high number of 100-degree days.

“Every dollar spent on mail scanning should have been used towards adding more AC,” says Dustin Rynders, director of the Criminal Injustice Program at Texas Civil Rights Project. “There are facilities that don’t even have AC and we’re buying scanners and printers. I mean, it’s just ridiculous.”

A 2022 study by researchers at Brown, Boston and Harvard University found that extreme heat may be to blame for 271 deaths in Texas prisons without air conditioning between 2001 and 2019. At least five prisoners have died of a heart attack or cardiac arrest in hot Texas prisons since mid-June, the Texas Tribune reported.

The heat can affect the tablets used to view mail, too. Jessica Dickerson, board member for the Texas Prisons Community Advocates has heard reports from Texas prisoners about technical issues with the tablets related to the intense summer heat.

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