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NYC Jails Want To Bar Physical Mail To Inmates As A Safety Measure

The New York City Department of Correction (DOC) wants to stop incarcerated people from receiving physical mail inside city jails, reports The Intercept. The department said the proposed changes are part of an effort to increase safety by cracking down on illegal contraband after the deaths of 19 people last year at Rikers Island, the city’s jail complex. Several people died from apparent drug overdoses, including at least one from fentanyl. The main source of contraband inside city jails has been staff, not mail, critics of the policy change said. The move to scrap physical mail opens the door to private firms to set up surveillance systems against inmates. Some city officials and advocates are concerned about an apparent plan to contract with the company Securus — a leading provider of phone calling systems for prisons and jails with a controversial past — to digitize detainees’ mail and make it available for searches. “Contractors are explicitly advertising unprecedented surveillance,” said Stephanie Krent of 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 trend of prisons and jails moving to stop incarcerated people from receiving physical mail. There is little evidence that those changes have stopped the flow of drugs, the Vera Institute said 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.”

Securus, the company that apparently would get the mail contract, has a controversial history. Under a previous contract with New York City, the firm illegally recorded phone calls between prisoners and their lawyers. The company has come under fire for illegally recording privileged legal phone calls between inmates and their defense attorneys in other states, as well as for overcharging incarcerated people and their loved ones for calling services. DOC has also proposed to limit packages received in city jails to a preapproved list of vendors like Amazon and Walmart, which would stop incarcerated people from receiving personalized 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,” city 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.”


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