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Missouri prisons are banning physical mail and replacing it with photocopies

A person out of frame holds photographs and letters from a loved one in prison in a photo illustration
Photo Illustration by Brian Munoz / Photos by Carolina Hidalgo
St. Louis Public Radio
Missouri will prohibit inmates from receiving personal mail beginning July 1, and instead rely on a Texas-based company to provide electronic copies of inmates' mail.

During his nearly three decades in prison, Chris Santillan received stacks of mail: birthday cards, handwritten letters, drawings from young relatives smeared with glitter glue. Some items are irreplaceable, like a photo of his dad on vacation in Mexico, an iguana perched on his shoulder.

“My dad passed away 13 years ago, and there’s no other copy of that photo,” said Santillan, who was released in February from Potosi Correctional Center in eastern Missouri. “I still take it out to look at it.”

But in a few weeks, tens of thousands of people in Missouri prisons will stop receiving letters and photos in the mail.

Like other states, Missouri will soon prohibit inmates in prisons statewide from receiving most physical mail. Instead, the state will pay a private, Texas-based company to scan inmates' mail and send them digital copies. State corrections officials say the move is necessary to stem the flow of drugs and other contraband into prisons, but criminal justice reform advocates warn it could violate inmates’ privacy and further isolate them from their families.

Chris Santillan saved photos and drawings that he received over his nearly three decades in prison, including this handmade card from a now-deceased friend.
Chris Santillan
Chris Santillan saved photos and drawings that he received over his nearly three decades in prison, including this handmade card from a now-deceased friend.

Beginning July 1, anyone who wishes to send personal mail to an inmate in Missouri must mail it to a centralized processing facility in Tampa owned by Securus Technologies, where workers will make a digital copy. Inmates will be able to view their mail on electronic tablets, which they receive at no cost from the company when they first enter prison.

Inmates who don’t have access to a tablet will receive free paper photocopies of their personal mail. Missouri prisons will continue to accept certain types of postal mail, including legal correspondence from attorneys, visitation applications and mail from state agencies.

Outsourcing mail processing will help ease the burden on prison workers in Missouri’s correctional system, which is facing a staffing shortage, said Karen Pojmann, spokesperson for the Missouri Department of Corrections.

Screening mail for drugs and inappropriate content is a “long and involved process,” she said.

Missouri prison staff have intercepted fentanyl, methamphetamine, suboxone, marijuana and synthetic marijuana in mail sent to prisons this year, the department said, though it was not able to provide data on the total number of contraband items found in the mail.

“We've seen drugs hidden under stamps, in the creases of envelopes, inside greeting cards or soaked into the paper itself so it's not visible to the naked eye,” Pojmann said. “If we suspect that has happened, then we pull in inspectors to test the paper.”

New Mexico, Florida, North Carolina and Pennsylvania also have banned personal mail in prisons, citing concerns over drug smuggling.

Still, it’s unclear whether the changes to mail processing will substantially reduce the amount of contraband entering prisons.

An investigation from the Texas Tribune and the Marshall Project last year found the flow of contraband into Texas prisons remained largely unchanged, despite statewide mail restrictions.

St. Louis on the Air
Reporter Shahla Farzan discusses Missouri's ban on physical mail in prisons

Adding barriers between family members

Some criminal justice reform advocates argue the push to digitize personal mail will further isolate incarcerated people and their families.

Creating an electronic copy of personal mail “just takes the humanity out of it,” said Clinique Chapman, associate director of the Restoring Promise Initiative, a partnership between the Vera Institute of Justice and the MILPA Collective.

“When your child sends something to you, being able to feel the texture of the crayon, or smell your mom’s perfume on a letter, you won’t have that; these are just going to be copies,” Chapman said. “It’s just continuing to add barriers and space between someone who is incarcerated and their family members.”

Allowing for-profit companies to scan and store personal correspondence from thousands of inmates and their families is also a serious privacy risk with few benefits, she said.

“Who is actually winning when we are privatizing mail? The families aren’t; the incarcerated people aren’t; the prisons really aren’t,” Chapman said. “So who is benefiting from this? The companies. They’re capitalizing on the backs of those who are incarcerated.”

For Santillan, the decision to digitize inmates’ personal mail is troubling, given the possible privacy concerns.

“Yes, you are in the custody of the Department of Corrections, and you have relinquished some of your privacy rights to the State of Missouri,” Santillan said. “But also to outsource that privacy to some company that you don't know anything about and that can do whatever with that information? That’s deeply concerning.”

Follow Shahla on Twitter: @shahlafarzan

Shahla Farzan was a reporter at St. Louis Public Radio. Before becoming a journalist, Shahla spent six years studying native bees, eventually earning her PhD in ecology from the University of California-Davis. Her work for St. Louis Public Radio on drug overdoses in Missouri prisons won a 2020 Regional Edward R. Murrow Award.