NC computerized prison mail system is both cruel and a rip-off

I’ve been doing life in the North Carolina Department of Adult Correction (NCDAC) for almost 22 years. In 2021, the NCDAC made my life worse by contracting TextBehind to remotely scan and print our mail, supposedly to thwart synthetic drug smuggling, although it is widely accepted that prison employees are the main source of contraband.

Problems with TextBehind are too many to list. However, I once thought receiving a scanned copy of a birthday card three weeks late was as bad as TextBehind could get. But it’s about to become even worse.

Last month, people incarcerated at North Carolina prisons found out our scanned mail will be posted on prison-issued tablets. That translates to us viewing amateurishly scanned mail in tiny print on unreliable ViaPath tablets that regularly drop service.

Once, the tablet service dropped for three weeks. At Nash, where I am housed, 12 men must share six tablets because there aren’t enough for everyone. And if a tablet breaks, it can take up to six months for it to be replaced. Prisoners in solitary confinement have no tablets. On top of that, prison officials regularly restrict tablet usage as a collective punishment, not allowing them to be issued for the day because a few people don’t clean up their living area. All of this will amount to us losing access to our mail in a timely fashion or not receiving it at all.

This harmful issue is about more than us losing the experience of caressing a child’s first drawing or fingering a photo of a loved one. I survived this environment of hopelessness because tangible trinkets, like letters and cards, reassured me through bouts of depression, gave me a reason to live when I contemplated suicide, and humanized me when the violence and oppression of mass incarceration made me feel like a caged animal.

Now, no one wants to send me a personal letter through TextBehind.

Not only is it a mistake for the NCDAC to allow TextBehind to post mail on tablets, it is a mistake to continue monetizing our communication at all. Posting mail on tablets is happening because TextBehind loses money by printing our scanned U.S. postal mail without recouping the material cost, like toner, paper, and labor.

In North Carolina, the company only earns by charging high fees to send photos and letters through its app, as previously reported in a piece I wrote for Logic(s). Contrarily, TextBehind charges the Wisconsin Department of Corrections $1.49 per scanned letter, probably amounting to millions a year, on top of the revenue they reap from app usage in that state.

NC Newsline recently reported that the NCDAC was cutting ties with TextBehind, and going back to processing physical mail in its prisons, because the company wanted to charge the state for its services. Three days later, it changed plans again and renewed its arrangement with the firm.

If mail scanning actually reduced drug smuggling, the NCDAC would gladly pay for it, no matter the cost. But it doesn’t work. Trust me. I live in ground zero. Drugs are as rampant as they have ever been, with or without mail. As evidence of this fact, the NCDAC only continued the relationship after TextBehind partnered with ViaPath to post mail on our tablets, slashing the overhead to increase profits.

Obviously the NCDAC values money over the supposed prevention of drug smuggling. We already pay ViaPath nearly $2 for 15-minute phone calls that are free in California from the same company. ViaPath regularly hikes the price we pay for instant messaging on tablets without regulation by the NCDAC on our behalf. Now ViaPath will also control our U.S. postal mail.

When will the unfair monetization of communication stop? North Carolina’s prisons have become corporate piggy banks. I blame NCDAC officials for allowing predatory companies to exploit us for profit without bargaining for fairer prices and better service. Rehabilitation demands healthy communication with loved ones. To ignore that fact promotes recidivism, because we cannot build necessary bonds to ensure success upon release.

Posting mail on tablets is just the latest corporate hustle.

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