At its next public meeting, New York City officials will vote on a proposal by the Department of Correction (DOC) to ban paper mail in the city’s jails. If the New York City Board of Correction – which oversees the DOC – approves this plan, it could make life even tougher for people in the deadly jails on Rikers Island where conditions are already extremely harsh. There is also a push to curb already limited oversight of Rikers, which has been plagued by unaccountable violence, corruption, and mismanagement for decades.
A Bad Solution to a Serious Problem
Under the DOC’s plan, the Department would require all mail to be sent to an off-site facility to be scanned and digitized by a private company so that people in custody could read letters only electronically on tablets. The Department would also require that all packages be sent directly from a limited list of approved vendors. The DOC claims this proposal is designed to reduce the number of overdoses by clamping down on the amount of drugs that are sent through the mail.
It’s absolutely true that, over the past few years, New York City jails have seen a tragic rise in drug overdoses. Between January 2021 and September 2022, there were 481 suspected or confirmed overdoses, and in 2022 alone, five of these incidents resulted in someone dying.
But, as the city’s Department of Investigation has confirmed, drugs are largely not coming in through the mail, and the experiences of other states that have digitized mail show the policy won’t solve the problem of overdoses. In Missouri, for example, jail officials banned physical mail and moved to a digitized process in June 2022. Overdoses not only continued, they spiked during the first four months of implementation, from an average of 31 overdoses to 37 a month.
Corrections officers who smuggle in illicit substances – rather than letters secretly laced with contraband – are the primary conduit through which drugs arrive in city jails. DOC itself seems to recognize that contraband frequently makes its way into city jails through corrections officers and other staff, as just last month it was reported that—despite strong union opposition—a body scanner was being installed at Rikers to check officers and staff in an effort to try to curb contraband.
Much Worse than Useless
The proposal to eliminate paper mail isn’t just unlikely to reduce the number of overdoses, it will cut off a vital connection to the outside world that people in jails rely on. In an op-ed published in The Appeal, David Campbell, who was formerly incarcerated at Rikers, explains in detail how important receiving paper mail was for him:
I was lucky enough to get a lot of mail while imprisoned on Rikers Island. There was a ton of variety: Graph paper, notebook paper, and finger paintings from my friends’ toddler. Tiny, delicate pages from a Muji notebook, studded with a grid of little gray dots. Sky-blue stationery trimmed with an ornate, gleaming floral motif. … I saved every letter I received, and took them home with me in a 33-gallon trash bag upon release. Because that is how much paper mail means to a prisoner. Its value is second only to a hug on a visit.
Getting rid of paper mail won’t just mean that a physical lifeline to home that can be revisited will be replaced by a poor, glitchy, electronic substitution. There is also ample reason to believe digital mail poses very real surveillance issues as well. Indeed, information garnered from a recent Gothamist public records request suggests that under the Department’s new tablet contract with Securus, correction officers will be able to use keyword searches to review incarcerated individual’s mail.
A Transparency Crisis During a Humanitarian Disaster
The DOC effort to ban mail comes as the city’s principal jail complex – Rikers Island – is in crisis. The long-troubled correctional institution notorious for violence and abuse just had its deadliest year yet with 19 people dying within its walls in 2022. Violence at the always extremely dangerous facility, has risen in recent years. A federal monitor and various other interventions over the years have failed to improve conditions in one of the most dangerous jails in the country.
Things have been so bad for so long that the city faces the very real possibility that authority over Rikers will be taken out of its hands and given over to the federal government. Despite current conditions, city officials have responded not by taking pains to show that progress is being made, but by doing everything possible to thwart transparency and accountability.
The Board of Correction raised alarms in January about a new policy implemented by the DOC that cuts off the Board’s access to video surveillance at Rikers. And now the BOC has floated a proposal to slash the number of meetings it holds from an already too-infrequent nine meetings a year, to just six.
Public meetings offer a rare opportunity for incarcerated New Yorkers and their loved ones to have their voices heard. Frequent meetings are also a way to make clear to the DOC – whose leadership seems to delight in undermining the Board’s authority – that the Board is serious about oversight.
With the myriad of issues facing Rikers, there is an urgent need for more accountability, not less. It is incomprehensible that in the midst of a potential federal takeover and coming off the deadliest year in Rikers’ bloody history, the Board is considering doing even less to solve the entrenched problems that plague this notorious jail.