Ban On Physical Mail Slated For NYC Jails, Which Could Go Digital Instead

Prison is a scary place, very much by design. It’s a place you end up when convicted of crimes by the judicial system, or in some cases, if you’re merely awaiting trial. Once you go in as a prisoner, general freedom and a laundry list of other rights are denied to you. New York City is the latest in a long list of municipalities looking to expand that list to include a ban on inmates receiving physical mail.

To achieve this, prisons across the US are instead switching to digital-only systems, which would be run by a private entity. Let’s look at the how, what, and why of this contentious new idea.

Mail Call No More

The right to receive mail is considered a fundamental right of the prisoner by the United Nations. Similarly, it’s mentioned in the Geneva Convention as a basic part of humane treatment. Of course, those international standards have little sway on the ground in any individual country. Either way, historically prisoners in the US have been able to both send and receive mail. It’s served as a way for prisoners to stay in contact with their families, pursue education, and to take care of matters with their legal counsel. The latter in particular is key, as prisoners have a right to confidential communication with their legal representatives.

However, there has more recently been a push to end the traditional practice of prisoners receiving regular mail. The most typical reasoning put forth by authorities is that physical mail is a route for contraband to enter the prison, particularly where drugs are concerned. This is used as support for the idea of abandoning physical incoming mail. Instead, mail to prisoners is redirected to a third party service, where it is digitally scanned. Prisoners then access the mail via digital tablets or kiosks within the prison.

Advocacy groups have questioned this rationale. Critics contend that most prison contraband actually enters corrections facilities via staff. It’s a reasonable assertion worthy of consideration. After all, ask any pen tester what’s easier — sneaking in small quantities of illicit materials by secreting them in mail, or simply putting contraband in the pockets of those with authorization to come and go at will.

Many prisoners study via correspondence. This is made more difficult by physical mail bans. Image Credit: California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation

There’s also the money factor to consider. Private organizations typically win the contracts to provide “digital mail” services to prisons. These organizations directly profit from the ban on physical mail, suggesting there’s reasons outside of prison safety that these measures may have been pursued.

As with any communications method involving a third party, it raises privacy concerns as well. Companies like Securus, that have bid on digital prison mail contracts, have demonstrated in the past a fast and loose attitude towards privacy. The organization, which also runs prison phone services, has previously been the subject of lawsuits for illegal recording of prisoner communications.

In some cases, these calls were allegedly privileged communications between prisoners and their lawyers, that were then listened to by prosecutors involved in cases. Giving such third parties direct access and control over prisoner mail would open up a whole new communication channel to this kind of foul play. There’s also the potential for these third parties to scrape prisoner mail for all kinds of data that can be sold on the open market. 

There’s also something to be said for the value of real mail to the prisoners themselves. Often, they’re a class that is treated as if they have no rights, though it behooves us to remember that prisoners are human beings too. Indeed, if the idea of prison is to rehabilitate people and allow them to one day reenter society, it seems counterproductive to further restrict and control their contact with their support networks in the outside world.

Being able to hold a physical piece of mail from a child, partner, or loved one, can be an important piece of mental support for people living in what are, if we’re honest, some of the worst situations humans have dreamed up for each other. And, as any music enthusiast will tell you, there’s a big difference between the physical media and the experience of a digital copy. It’s difficult to see how restricting a prisoner’s communication to calls and screens could have much of a positive effect. It’s also worth noting that not everyone in prison or jail is even a convicted criminal. Often, people are thrown into these institutions to await trial, still innocent until they are proven guilty.

Nineteen states in the US have already enacted policies against physical mail. Prisons will state that the measures are cutting down on contraband, and the third parties collecting government money will back that up while cheering on improvements to efficiency. Meanwhile, more prisoners in the most incarceration-heavy country on Earth are finding themselves cut off from another channel of human connection.

Banner image: UK postage stamps on mail by [gratuit]

50 thoughts on “Ban On Physical Mail Slated For NYC Jails, Which Could Go Digital Instead

    1. “Needs more clowns.”

      Speak to the ringleader, Tom Gores. He’s the CEO of Platinum Equity – the asset management firm that owns Securus Technologies, along with other companies totalling over $20bn.Something tells me that ‘rehabilitation’ is rarely mentioned in the board meetings.

      Any Detroit Pistons fans paying up to $25 for a 15 minute call might want to consider switching allegiances.

    1. I wondered that. The posting seemed more about the need for mail. Not about the email system used.

      The rules used to be much stricter. Robert Stroud could get very little mail, and he was in solitary for decades. See “Birdman of Alcatraz”, though by the time he got there, no birds.

    2. It’s a sneaky call-to-action to destroy the capabilities of any third parties trying to fulfill the role of postmaster to connect to the larger internet. They’re doing the right thing here. Replacing physical mail with for-profit email is completely unacceptable, and whatever means are used to prevent the switchover are ethical.

    3. Yeah I’ll be honest. I really don’t like these articles on hackaday. Reminds me of the clock boy story. If you want to write about politics don’t write for hackaday, I’m sure I’ll be told that everything is political but please I just want to read about hacks here. If I want politics I’ll go to politics give me a space free of that plague.

      1. Things are political whether or not you realize it – and apathy towards the political ends up being complacency to whatever the status quo is. Policies around conversion to digital platforms (cashless payments, phone apps for tickets, faceid etc) pretend to be about streamlining or security but ultimately are moves that enable consolidation and passive surveillance and that’s something we gotta care about unless we are trying to live in the NSA-metaverse dystopia.

        +1 to hackaday for bringing this up – maybe there is a place to discuss what a hack could be – what formats would be allowed? Could you encrypt information in a prison mail system either for an inmate or as a covert entrypoint to the larger prison network? Does a digital system open itself up to disruption via say attacks of scale that might be leveraged in a strike?

    4. The hack is a method to squeeze what little wealth an underclass citizenry that nobody cares about has, while also extracting large amounts of taxpayer dollars for the express purposes of fixing a problem that doesn’t exist. I’m sure there are no double-dealing politicians with ties to the company that will process the mail and make it available to the inmates digitally.

  1. This is a well-written and impassioned plea for continuing to provide reasonable and traditionally allowed comforts for prisoners. It’s true, you can’t tape up on your cell wall a paperless, digital “I love you daddy” with a heart drawn in crayon by your 5-year-old daughter (unless the prison is willing to spring for color printers), and there is no substitute for physical “care packages.” I would tend to agree that most contraband is mostly smuggled in by guards. My opinion of privatized prison services companies is already low. So it comes down to this: is there something that the Hackaday community can do to help here?

    1. Tell your local representative about this issue. Best options include: going to meet and talk with them directly, with a prepared list of facts and opinions, going to meet them, calling your rep, send a physical postcard (handwritten, of course).
      (US of A)

  2. I just don’t believe the slated reason for ending physical mail. The most likely reason why they want to end physical mail is: they can’t grep it for information. I should think that just seeing someone’s handwriting, maybe even the scent of perfume on the envelope, would help someone from killing themselves in prison.

      1. They absolutely open all mail coming in and can seize or censor any mail or incoming media (books, magazines etc) basically unilaterally – but digitizing it makes that info insanely easier to scan, store, plug into some half-baked AI predictive system, outsource labor to whoever (maybe even insource to other inmates).

  3. Really on the fence about this one. As someone who writes honest pen and paper letters and thank you cards, it is rare enough that recipients are usually really surprised to get a “real” piece of mail, and don’t really notice that that form of communication has gone the way of the dodo. We also have electronic mail already for whatever personal correspondence has to happen. It’s a thing, or so I’ve heard. So I don’t really buy that depriving people of mail is inhumane or whatever since the huge majority of the public doesn’t do it anyway. Plus the US didn’t even ratify like half of the Geneva convention so saying it is any prisoner’s right might be faulty logic too but I didn’t look ino that.
    But getting something while in prison, that would probably be the highlight of the week.
    The better question is who is going to profit and the answer obviously is the stupid tech company that is going to sell the service to the NYS department of corrections for millions.

  4. ” … if the idea of prison is to rehabilitate people …”

    Nope, it is not. Prison has always been for punishment and to keep bad people away from society. Prison is meant to be a deterrent and make people to want to never go back.

    Caption: “Many prisoners study via correspondence. This is made more difficult by physical mail bans. ”

    Hmmm, all of the students that had to switch to online classes during Covid lockdowns would probably disagree. I suspect taking classes online will be much easier for them than via snail-mail.

    “… the most incarceration-heavy country on Earth ”

    Perhaps the prison system is too easy and thus does not act as a deterrent so we have lots of repeat offenders? Perhaps the other countries are much more lax on crime so criminals run free, that would also result in lower prison rates. Having a high level of incarceration does not mean anything without context of WHY we have high rates of incarceration.

    Also, Where is the hack?

    1. “Perhaps the prison system is too easy and thus does not act as a deterrent so we have lots of repeat offenders? Perhaps the other countries are much more lax on crime so criminals run free, that would also result in lower prison rates. Having a high level of incarceration does not mean anything without context of WHY we have high rates of incarceration.”

      It’s the War on Drugs. Context supplied.

      I’m honestly confused as to how anyone can put that much thought into the subject and not come to the conclusion that the US penal system is one of the many ways in which the US is fucked. Who hurt you to render you this blind?

      1. You are replying to a Red-Pilled simple minded person, the normal right-winger. The world would be a better place without them but alas, here they are, shouting and showing by that that they only think of themselves and that everyone not like them shouldn’t exists.

        And before some starts that i am intolerant of right-wing persons, read up “paradox of tolerance”. We in Germany have a saying, “Kein Fußbreit den Faschisten”, not a single step back for fascists. And right-wingers are fascists, even if they don’t admit it, deep in their hearth they want a world only consisting of them and people like them. And in the case of the average right-wing US American that would be White Cis Straight Christians.

    2. “Prison is meant to be a deterrent and make people to want to never go back.”
      Is that why the US penal system and it’s public opinion make absolutely damn sure you’ll never have a normal life again after you get out? From where I’m standing (Western Europe) your penal system is designed to make very sure your prisoners come right back to prison asap so they can make more profit for their slave masters.

      The entirety of the civilized world has moved away from that way of thinking a long time ago. Because it provably doesn’t work and has never worked. This goes to show once again that the USA should no longer be considered part of the civilized world. It’s “for profit” prison system is tantamount to slavery and an abomination. If any part of the US judicial system is in the most dire need of drastic reform, it is their prison system.

      1. I was looking for the right comment to add my western europe comments on but you pretty much nailed it.

        It truely frightens me what the US population accept and believe is a fit and fair judicial system.

    3. Lots of statements there… most do not seem generally applicable, except maybe in Florida.

      Note, prisoners need to pay rather high rates for internet access, so this “online will be much easier” only applies to rich people.

      Compare US prison system to the the much more humane system of Norway. Norway recidivism is at 20%, while the US is over 40%. Making prison suck as deterrent just doesn’t work. Of course, if your prisons are “for profit”, then a high recidivism rate great for the bottom line.

    4. > Having a high level of incarceration does not mean anything without context of WHY we have high rates of incarceration.

      And speaking of why, what is your explanation for USA having 5-6 times more than the average European country?

  5. To date, every prison that has attempted this has been shot down in the courts for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the high costs that are passed on to prisoners

  6. “those international standards have little sway on the ground in any individual country”
    Uhm it might be interesting to hear that the US congress ratified several international treaties and thereby making them national law also.
    And yes all to many people in the US including those in federal employment (from high to low level positions) don’t seem to get that.

  7. Look up the “Penopticon” – that’s what prisons are more or less with technology. The feel, the texture, the stamps, and opening a really, written letter is something I believe we should allow after all we will have to live with former inmate when they are returned to society. Do we really want to continue the ever growing decent of dehumanizing them and setting the stage for them never breaking the chains that bind them to the ground no matter if they have paid thier debts to that society, a conviction is now a forever life effect. – Aquahood (J.D.)

  8. I spent 10 years and $120,000 in legal fees in prison before being acquitted on appeals due to crooked prosecutors, running for higher public office, which hid, withheld, and destroyed exculpatory evidence. But that’s another story. I can tell you from firsthand experience that prison really is hell on earth! And it’s all about the money, corrections is the third largest industry in the country and a highly profitable one. A 15 minute phone call costs $20 and even if your family can afford them, are severely limited. (And that $ punishes the family, not the inmate) But a letter still only costs 60 cents. Getting a letter in the mail is indeed the highlight of a prisoner’s day, week, and even month. Letters from home are the most valuable and treasured items an inmate may possess. Mail also includes magazines and books, reading material, educational materials, and puzzles to while away the hours.
    In Florida and many states now, there is NO rehabilitation, and FL statues even specify in 3 different places that ‘prison is for punishment, not rehabilitation’. They have removed ALL training and education including GED classes paid for by the feds, and programs paid for by churches. They wanna keep those revolving doors spinning! Mail is the only way a prisoner may be able to better himself and prepare for release in a society that has changed considerably during the xx years they were incarcerated.

  9. DOCTOR WIZARD is 100% correct on this. I see what some are saying “where’s the hack?” here, I too wish for HAD to firmly remain non-political. The only “hacks” I could see would be from the angle of how one smuggles drugs in sheets of paper but my guess would be that is probably not an area of knowledge for the HAD writers, not a dig on them but few people have experience with this. But if they would have used that angle it would seem to only serve to support this new digital mail thing. All I will add to Doctor Wizard’s comment is from what I have seen these contract companies make millions a year off the inmates and the inmates families and anytime they can make their services a legal necessity by getting laws passed it should scare everyone. Keep in mind this isn’t just for prisoners but also for people that have only been arrested for say DUI and can’t post bail. You don’t have to look too far to find a city where a cop was falsely arresting people for DUI/OWI for various reasons. So this mail thing covers people that have not been convicted yet and as much as simply being in jail is enough for most to assume a persons guilt at least in America you are to be considered innocent until proven guilty and as such being subjected to things such as this to me is just simply wrong. The number of people that take plea bargains just to get out of jail for crimes they aren’t guilty of is staggering and much more than most would be comfortable with and things like this are just another kick in the teeth to people that have been victimized by the justice system.

    I would say some of the most interesting hacks are done by incarcerated people but they almost never are seen by the outside for obvious reasons.

  10. > Perhaps the prison system is too easy and thus does not act as a deterrent so we have lots of repeat offenders? Perhaps the other countries are much more lax on crime so criminals run free, that would also result in lower prison rates.

    Your ability to come up with possible explanations, even extremely unlikely ones are impressive.

    USA’s prison system is lagging behind everyone else because of profit and cruelty. There is an excellent documentary named [Breaking the Cycle]( which compares the prison system in USA and Norway which [used to be available]( in full length on youtube, but there is a [11 minutes excerpt]( still available. The full documentary can be [viewed here](

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