Home » What’s Lost When Prison Mail Goes Digital?

What’s Lost When Prison Mail Goes Digital?

Pastor Frank Switzer has written thousands of letters to men in prison. During his first tentative years as a young pastor, a woman in his congregation in Phoenix approached the pulpit one Sunday and asked him to write to her son, who had just been sentenced to five years.

Switzer’s yes turned into a long list of correspondents spanning more than two decades of letter writing. But a new policy at the Federal Bureau of Prisons could change how Switzer and other Christian prison pen pals across the country encourage and evangelize those behind bars.

In 2020, the Donald Trump administration piloted a program that converted all incoming physical mail at two federal prisons into electronic scans. Smart Communications, the government contractor tasked with scanning the letters, says its MailGuard service “finally eliminates one of corrections’ longest-running problems and security loopholes—contraband and secret communications in inmate postal mail.” Several state prisons across the country have adopted similar practices.

There are no publicly available statistics showing how often contraband is smuggled into US prisons in the mail. In one year in Virginia, prison officials discovered drugs in about 12 of the 1.4 million letters sent to incarcerated people. In Texas, just over one half of one percent of letters were flagged for suspicious content in 2019. It is unknown how often suspicions were confirmed.

Under the scan policy, rather than getting to hold the physical items sent to them—handwritten letters, photos, kids’ drawings, brochures, and even Bible study materials—those in prison can only see their mail haul on a screen. President Joe Biden’s administration has indicated it plans to continue and expand the program, which has shown to be efficient but unpopular with some ministries and nonprofits that serve people who are incarcerated.

“I think it’s a really bad idea,” said Karen Swanson, director of the Institute for Prison Ministries at Wheaton College. “I don’t know that the premise is really strong, and I think the cost to the families and the incarcerated is really high.”

Swanson said research shows that connection to family and loved ones is crucial for inmates, and that those who lose that connection are more prone to recidivism. She worries that converting physical mail to scans could discourage families from sending mail at all. The letters that do come could be harder to read if the scans are blurry, too dark, or too light.

“To get a scan, as opposed to the letter that the family members actually touched … you lose some of that connection,” Swanson said.

Crossroads Prison Ministries also has concerns. It creates Bible studies for people who are incarcerated and then connects its students with Christian mentors on the outside. The international ministry sent more than 158,000 Bible lessons to inmates in more than 2,200 prisons across the US last fiscal year. Its studies are usually multiple pages and include colorful graphics that typically don’t scan well.

David Gilman, vice president of advancement at Crossroads, said unless someone were to carefully take apart the collated Bible studies and watch closely to make sure the full pages are render clearly, the scans may not be readable once they reach the inmates. They also use a lot of art work from students, which can be difficult to scan.

Gilman said Crossroads worked with the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections to allow exemptions for religious material when Pennsylvania prisons converted all incoming physical mail to scans starting in 2018. But he’s not sure whether they’ll get that exemption in other states or in federal prisons.

Article continues below

In the meantime, Crossroads is trying to adapt. “We’re looking at whether we need to change the design of our lessons to be more scannable,” Gilman said. “We have more than 100 lessons that might have to be redesigned.”

Sending Bible studies directly to incarcerated people can be a ministry of discipleship and comfort to a segment of the population that’s often stigmatized, ignored, or forgotten. In the Book of Matthew, Jesus commends his disciples for visiting people in prison (Matt. 25:34–45). Similarly, the Epistle to the Hebrews says to “remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison” (Heb 13:3). Four of Paul’s New Testament letters, notably, were written from prison.

Though it’s a clear biblical mandate, prison ministry isn’t always the first thing that comes to mind when Christians set out to serve their communities. There is more caution and perceived baggage in ministering to those whose bad choices are public knowledge than in feeding the hungry, for example. Switzer said he purposely writes to men who have been convicted of sex crimes.

“I do a lot of prison ministry outside of sex offenders, but sex offenders are the ones that are pretty much forgotten by most people,” he said. Many such men are surprised that Switzer is willing to write to them.

Some jails and prisons across the country now provide inmates with tablets on which they can access their email accounts and scanned-in mail on their own. In other facilities where the scan policy is in place, inmates have to read correspondence on a public kiosk set up in a common area, without the option to print and save copies.

Corey Smith has been awaiting trial at the South County Jail in Polk County, Florida, for three years. That facility changed its incoming mail policy to all digital in 2018, after police discovered some inmates smuggling synthetic marijuana into the prison using letters laced with the substance.

Smith said he often stands at the kiosk and copies by hand the letters he receives from loved ones so that he can write his own responses later (inmates are still permitted to send out their own handwritten letters). That’s annoying, he said, but what’s worse is having to read a deeply personal letter in a public space.

“I have received letters from family that touched me in such a way that I wanted to cry, but I didn’t feel comfortable exposing myself in the public location that the kiosks are located in,” Smith wrote in an email from the kiosk.

Smith says the South County Jail has only three kiosks for 96 inmates, and they are only accessible at prescribed times throughout the day. The COVID-19 pandemic, which also shut down in-person visits from loved ones, limited inmates’ access even further.

Switzer said for him, electronic communications have made letter-writing to inmates easier. He can write more letters to more men from a keyboard than with a pen and paper. Still, he’s often frustrated by how long it takes for even his digital letters to go through the prison’s review process to reach their recipients.

“Please remember that not all messages are delivered immediately and are subject to search,” reads Smart Communications’ messaging homepage. “There is no expectation of privacy.”

One of Switzer’s longest correspondence relationships was with Charlie Robson. The men exchanged letters for almost all of Robson’s 17-year sentence inside an Arizona prison. Robson, who was released in 2016, said he came to know Jesus through Switzer’s letters. And he credits the letters between him and his wife and children—he wrote to them every single day—with keeping his family together and keeping him alive.

Article continues below

Robson is an artist and said the skills he developed as a painter added layers to letters from home—not only did he read the words; he studied the handwriting.

“Sometimes you can see brush strokes in a painting … and I felt like this same visibility was present in penmanship. I could tell if my mom was scattered, I could tell if my mom was just sitting in her chair thinking of me by her penmanship.”

Marcus Bullock has also spent time behind bars. Bullock started Flikshop, a company that sends postcards to incarcerated men and women, after he finished an eight-year stint in prison. “I like to say I have eight years of market research,” the Christian founder said.

He said the letters he received from his mom helped him imagine what his life would look like upon his release.

At Flikshop, inmates’ families and loved ones can upload a photo and type a brief message into an online template. The company then prints the full-color postcards, pre-approved by prison officials for delivery, and sends them to prisoners.

“You want the experience of having that photo you can put on the inside of your locker … or use as a bookmark, of your six-year-old daughter in front of her birthday cake,” Bullock said.

Flikshop has tech that flags any explicit images in the uploaded postcards before they are sent out. And they use metered postage, so there’s no sticky stamp to which someone could affix drugs. Bullock says he’s worked hard to gain the special approval to act as a mail conduit for individual prisons all over the country. If they start requiring scans, that could change.

“It’s scary, it’s definitely scary,” Bullock said. He doesn’t believe it’s the end of real mail yet, though, and he hopes the policy doesn’t spread.

Maria Baer is a contributing writer to CT based in Columbus, Ohio.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Leave a Reply