Florida Prison Mail Plan Sparks Opposition – CBS Miami

TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami / NSF) – Photos of spouses, hand-colored drawings of children, and tear-streaked letters are among the prison inmates’ most valued lifelines to the outside world.

But Florida correctional officials are moving forward with a plan to replace prisoners’ “routine” mail with digitized versions of correspondence that would be viewed on tablet computers or public kiosks.

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The proposal has sparked an outcry among families and supporters of the detainees, who argue that maintaining bonds with loved ones while in detention dramatically increases the chances of success later on.

“For us, for my husband personally, physical images are what motivates him. It’s you who keep it going day in and day out, ”Tatiana Sparks, whose husband is an inmate, told Justice Department officials during a June 11 hearing about the proposed rule. “Having a physical picture or card cannot be compared to having a scanned version printed at the kiosk.”

Sparks was among dozens of family members and other speakers who blew the digitization plan during the online hearing. The Agency received so many requests to oppose the proposed rule that officials extended the deadline for receiving written public comments.

Correctional leaders say they need to digitize most incoming mail to crack down on contraband, including dangerous drugs that sneak into jails.

The proposed digitization of most physical mail items “is based on security concerns related to staff and inmate population,” Justice Department Assistant Secretary Richard Comerford said during the hearing.

According to Comerford, from January 2019 to April 2021 “over 35,000 contraband items were discovered in the routine mail of inmates” at the state prison.

Items included “dangerous chemicals” soaked in paper, “sharp instruments” and “deadly narcotics like fentanyl,” he said.

The plan calls for JPay, a kiosk and tablet company, to scan physical mail and upload images to cloud storage. Inmates would pay 25 cents per page for black and white paper copies of scanned images and $ 1 per page for color printouts, Comerford said.

Legal mail, so-called “privileged mail” and “publications” would not be affected by the plan, according to the prison officials.

Inmates who do not have access to kiosks or tablets, such as those who are in close detention, would also have their mail printed for free, Comerford said.

The delivery of the mail to the prisoners “will be more timely within the framework of the digitized system,” he said.

Inmates’ attorneys argued, however, that reading email on tablet computers – which some inmates do not own – is not the same as holding a piece of paper, picture, or drawing that was once in the hands of a loved one were.

“It is very important for a prisoner to be able to physically touch the mail he receives from loved ones. A picture on a screen can never replace a handmade card from your child. The department has done so much over the years to make it difficult for prisoners in the name of safety, ”Ryan Harris, a former inmate, told Comerford and other prison officials during the hearing. “You have reduced prison life to a dull, bleak existence, and this is one of those measures. That is a terrible idea and it must be broken off now. “

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Children’s lives are made “tangible” through the mail, one of the speakers, George Lambert, said during the Comerford hearing.

“They are able to touch letters, hug, kiss, and cry. They invite their children into their lives every day through the letters, and the inmates constantly remind them of their love through theirs, ”said Lambert, adding that he communicated regularly by mail with his“ lover ”and several other inmates.

Relying solely on tablets and kiosks would also be problematic for many other reasons, said opponents of the proposal.

Personal tablets used by inmates often break down, and many facilities have insufficient charging points to power the tablets. Inmates often have to queue to get access to kiosks that are not always available. In addition, detainees may not be provided with electronic images once they are released.

“To be able to touch something that was once in the hands of your most important person is truly an incredible thing and a way to demonstrate intimacy in a relationship,” said Dawn Taylor, whose boyfriend is an inmate.

Correctional officials said that while the kiosks have limited storage space, the kiosks have unlimited storage space.

“It is also important to note that the storage space for the current incoming physical mail is not unlimited and must be kept in the confined space of an inmate and then carried with each transfer or reassignment within the institution. Inmates can keep the mail and photos they currently have, ”the agency said in response to questions from Florida Intelligence.

Senate Judiciary Jeff Brandes, a St. Petersburg Republican who has been promoting criminal justice reforms for years, said law enforcement officials are considering switching to digitized mail because they “can’t control the amount of a certain type of drug to get”. , Suboxone, is used in prison facilities. Suboxone, which can be given by placing it under the tongue of people, is a prescription drug used to treat opioid addiction.

Brandes questioned the proposed rule.

“I was a soldier in Iraq. I can tell you that the post that lifts your spirits is more than anything. And physical mail is important. And the department knows that, ”he told the intelligence service in a telephone interview. “I think it is a real burden for me to see how all institutions go in this direction.”

At least one other state – Pennsylvania – and the Federal Bureau of Prisons have implemented digitized mail programs for inmates. Florida Corrections Secretary Mark Inch was a director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons in 2017 and 2018.

But Adina Thompson, Florida admissions coordinator for the Innocence Project, said a digitized postal system would impose “class disadvantages” on inmates who cannot afford to buy tablets. She also said the proposed changes could affect prisoners’ ability to transition to outdoor living.

“It’s important that these people come home and try to rebuild their lives,” Thompson told the news service. “And by removing this tactile connection to the outside world, it becomes even more difficult for returning citizens.”

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