Jails Go Digital to Protect Inmates—and Prevent Contraband

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Photo by Esther Vargas via Flickr

A Michigan jail is the latest facility to switch to digital mail for inmates in an effort to decrease contraband sent through snail mail, and protect staff and detainees from COVID-19.

The Oakland County jail, located north of Detroit, announced this month it has contracted with a Florida-based technology company called Smart Communications to provide tablets that inmates can use for electronic communications, the Associated Press reported.

According to Sheriff Michael Bouchard, the system will free up staff who are currently assigned to screen letters and packages sent to inmates at the facility, which has an estimated daily population of 700 inmates.

Jail officials claimed it will save inmates money. It will cost 50 cents to send an email—about 25 cents cheaper than the cost of an envelope and postage for regular mail—and about $1 to transmit color photos.

The messages will be archived “so they can access the information when they get released,” said Administrative Lt. Steven Schneider.

But the move to digital systems has also been defended by jail authorities as a safety measure to prevent the spread of infections from coronavirus.

A county jail in Huntsville, Ala. announced in September that they too would be transitioning into digital mail, in a system similar to that in the Michigan jail, WTVA reports.

Instead of tablets for prisoners to share, digital mail will be viewed at kiosks inside the housing areas, but will only be kept for a week after being scanned.

Shawnee County, Ks., Walton County, Fl., and Sangamon County, Il., are three other jurisdictions which have made the change to digital mail in their county jails, each having their own process and protocol for sending and receiving the mail, although following generally the same rules as other prisons.

While jails partnering with different technology companies could certainly help the effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus in jails, most jails have implemented digital mail services to help stop drugs and contraband from entering the jails through mail, according to media reports.

WCIA News in Illinois reports that county jails like that in Sangamon County already require employees to inspect physical inmate mail for contraband, but the process was “inefficient” and takes employees “hundreds of hours” to complete.

“Protecting our employees and enhancing security are the two issues that led to this decision,” said Sheriff Michael Adkinson on the Walton County Sheriff’s website.

In Michigan, Smart Communications will also offer training programs to help inmates learn how to access online resources in education, substance abuse, cognitive behavior programming, as well as a complete law library.

While other jurisdictions don’t use the same third-party company, the process is relatively the same, with the scanning and uploading of physical mail for inmates to view.

Some prisoner rights advocates, however, warn that the growing use of digital mail in jails threatens inmate privacy.

Although most correctional facilities already inspect physical mail, using a third-party company could make electronic communications vulnerable to security breaches or cybersabotage.

Others argue that restrictions on Internet use by prisoners have become a new source of concern in the U.S. prison system.

“Prison systems are making it harder for the public to hear from incarcerated people through excessive restrictions on the ways prisoners can express themselves over the Internet,” wrote Mark Rumold of the Electronic Frontier Foundation in a recent essay.

“Many states prohibit inmates from accessing or posting information to social media in any manner. Some states, like Alabama and Iowa, go so far as to limit the ability of third-parties outside of prison—like a friend or relative—to post information to social media on an inmate’s behalf.

“Some of these policies can even extend beyond what we typically think of as social media, prohibiting access to email or even any online publication of prisoners’ speech.”

This summary was prepared by TCR justice reporting intern Emily Riley

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