GAINESVILLE, Fla. – Kevin Scott was incarcerated in the Florida state prison system for around three and a half years, or, as he sees it: four birthdays, four Christmases and four of his daughter’s birthdays, too.
During his time behind bars from 2012 to 2016, Scott said, physical mail was the only way he could communicate with many friends and family members. He received handwritten letters, newspaper cutouts, birthday cards, holiday cards, photos of his young daughter, crossword puzzles and educational materials.
Sometimes, Scott’s mail would be covered in stick-on jewels and smiley faces, and he knew that outside the prison walls, his daughter had touched the same piece of paper he held in his hands.
“There’s no way to gather the right words together in the right order to fully convey how much that meant to me while I was in prison. Correspondence was huge for me,” Scott said. “To be able to touch something like that meant the world to me.”
Those pieces of memories are still safely stored in boxes at Scott’s home in Gainesville, he said.
Looking to curb contraband coming into prisons, the Florida Department of Corrections has proposed a new rule that would digitize all incoming “routine mail” for inmates, affecting things like personal letters, celebratory cards and photos. The proposal’s full text was first published on May 18.
Under Florida statute, once an agency publishes a proposed rule, it has 90 days to adopt it, said Ken Plante, coordinator of the Joint Administrative Procedures Committee, which oversees proposed rules.
The deadline for adoption was Aug. 16 in the Florida Administrative Law Central Online Network, also known as FALCON. On Thursday, FDC asked for a “tolled filing date,” which would indefinitely pause the 90 days, allowing the department more time to answer clarification questions about the rule from the JAPC.
Plante said that when the pause is lifted, FDC will have the same remaining number of days to adopt the new rule as it did before.
What could change?
Under the proposal, original mail would be scanned to a digital copy, which inmates could view on a tablet or kiosk or as a printed copy. Printed copies would cost 25 cents per page for black and white or $1 for color, said Molly Best, deputy communications director with FDC.
Under the current rule, there is no limit to the number of pages of written correspondence that can be sent with routine mail, and up to 15 inserts like photos and newspaper clippings can be included. Senders can also mail up to 10 blank greeting cards or unused sheets of paper with corresponding envelopes, which do not count toward the insert limit.
The proposal would restrict routine mail to no more than 15 pages, back and front, per envelope. Article clippings and photographs could still be included, but blank greeting cards would be prohibited.
Processing time to account for digitization also would shift, increasing from the current 48 hours to 72 hours. Once scanned, the original mail would be shredded by FDC after 90 days. Alternatively, the sender could request that it be returned, for which a self-addressed, stamped envelope must be sent before the 90 days runs out.
Best said the digital copies would be stored with unlimited capacity on each inmate’s account through JPay, FDC’s third-party vendor that provides the incarcerated with things like communications, music and movies for a fee.
Why is the new rule needed?
Digitization is an attempt to curb the entry of contraband into prisons and protect both prisoners and mail handlers, Best wrote in an email. Drugs like fentanyl and chemicals used to lace synthetic marijuana are two contraband examples she mentioned.
FDC found over 35,000 contraband items in mail between January 2019 and April 2021, Best said. A public records request was placed with FDC on Thursday asking what percent of total contraband those items represented.
David Weires, a former corrections deputy who worked about six months at the Avon Park Correctional Institution, where part of his job included making sure inmates received their mail, said physical mail can be problematic and that he thinks digitization is a good idea. Sometimes stickers will have drugs, like LSD, that can be licked off, he said, and paper can be made into a weapon.
The former corrections deputy said he could not speak to the importance of physical mail for inmates’ mental health, but many advocates, as well as formerly and currently incarcerated people and their loved ones, are opposed to the change. They say physical mail is an important connection to family and friends that helps positively motivate prisoners for reentry into society.
Prisoners say letters are key to mental health
Michael Edwards is an inmate at Liberty Correctional Institution in Bristol. In the 1990s, after selling $850 in cocaine to an ex-girlfriend-turned-informant, he was sentenced as a repeat offender to 60 years for nonviolent drug offenses. He has served 28 years and said he saves every piece of mail he gets, often sending bunches of them in large envelopes to his sister, Mimi, for safekeeping.
“Physical mail is my only tangible contact with many family members and friends that cannot visit me, so it does make a difference in my life, and it is important to me,” Edwards wrote in an email via JPay. “I would rather DOC allow postal mail deliveries to continue. Although I’m warming up nicely to the emails and eCards and images I receive via (JPay), I would feel like my physical relationship with those who don’t or can’t visit me would be cut off if routine mail was totally digitized — and I believe others in here would agree.”
John Wise, 37, of Gainesville, was released in April after serving 18 years and nine months for a second-degree murder conviction. He said physical mail was precious to him during his sentence, especially the one and only letter he has ever received from his daughter.
She was born 43 days after his arrest, Wise said, and sent him a message written in purple crayon on pink paper when she was 5 years old.
“I love that letter more than I could ever love any other thing that exists in the world,” he said.
Mail like that reminded Wise that his life was still coexistent with the real world despite the “strange nightmare that incarceration is,” he said, and by carrying the scent and feel of home, it could be held and cherished, like a charm.
“So much of being incarcerated is just dealing with the profound separation and loneliness that comes from almost-total isolation from everyone who was ever important to you,” Wise said. “To have FDC take that from so many people, people who have so little and are so desperate for hope and healing, it is truly egregious.”
In Pensacola, president of the Movement for Change grassroots activism organization and former NAACP president Rodney Jones said that during his more than seven years in prison in the 1990s for crimes including assault with a weapon and cocaine possession, mail was one of the most important things, even rivaling the canteen.
“Mail is the most important thing in the joint,” Jones said. “If you’re sitting in that joint for a few years, you want somebody to be thinking about you … that’s why it’s so important. You want to know somebody still cares.”
To get a written letter meant someone took time out of his or her day to show you they care, he said, similar to getting a call instead of a text message.
Once, while locked up, Jones said, he asked a friend to send him some money. The guy went out of his way to stop by Jones’ parents’ house, take photos and include them in the mail. It created a greater bond between the men, Jones said, and while the letter was sent more than 20 years ago, they are still friends.
“You can be in the joint for four-and-a-half years, almost five years, and get just one letter from a person. You will remember that person. You will think about that person,” he said. “It was only one letter out of all those years. It was just one letter, but that’s how important it was to me.”
Advocates push back
Denise Rock, executive director of the statewide nonprofit Florida Cares, which advocates to improve the lives of incarcerated people, said her organization has been opposed to the rule change since it was first announced. It punishes everyone rather than just the people who have tried to sneak in contraband, she said, and it unfairly burdens inmates’ families and loved ones.
Rock said she tried to speak against the proposal at an online public hearing held by FDC on June 11 but was unable to because of technology issues. However, just from listening, she said, there was virtually no support heard for the change.
“At Florida Cares, we do totally understand the desire to increase safety and security at every institution,” she said. “Our loved ones are incarcerated, but we just want them to be treated humanely, fairly.”
Tracy Zuluaga, an administrative assistant with Florida Cares, added that most contraband enters prisons through employees, not mail, and that she does not think the change is necessary.
“The incarcerated population is a forgotten population, a voiceless population,” she said. “Just getting through the day is a feat in and of itself. A simple piece of mail to keep that connection to the outside is crucial … all this is going to do is further disconnect them from their family.”
Zuluaga and Rock also said inmates’ tablets can be bad at holding charges and that JPay accounts have struggled with poor storage and disappearing emails in the past, which is a concern with an influx of digitized messages.
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Neil Volz, deputy director of another advocacy group, the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, said FRRC also opposes the proposal and sent a letter expressing concerns to FDC following the June virtual hearing.
“We believe that the proposed rule change creates yet another unnecessary barrier for the families of returning citizens to keep their family units connected, cohesive, and involved,” it stated.
Good contact fosters better reintegration, Volz said. While safety is important, that benefit of physical mail helps the greater community in the long run.
“It’s just a step in the wrong direction,” he said.