‘Extreme and harmful’ – Texas prison crackdown on greeting cards

OWhen LaToyia Walker was sent to Texas Lockhart Correctional Facility in 2017, her grandmother scribbled short notes on pre-written greeting cards before sending them off to prison. Writing letters had become a challenge after her grandmother suffered a stroke in 2012, and greeting cards were a key way to keep in touch.

But in March 2020, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) implemented a new policy that largely barred incarcerated people from receiving greeting cards in prisons, saying the measures would prevent the delivery of contraband. Families could send cards directly from approved vendors to prisons, but could not write on them.

“Mail received on colored, decorated, card stock, construction, linen or cotton paper” was banned. The letters could not contain “perfume, stickers, lipstick, bodily fluids, powdery substances or artwork using paint, glitter, glue or tape”.

The department is now partially reversing its policy, according to a letter sent to the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition on February 24 and obtained exclusively by Filtered.

The TDCJ will “soon announce” that facilities will allow greeting cards “for a period leading up to Mother’s Day, Father’s Day and Christmas,” according to the letter sent by Texas Board of Criminal Justice Chairman Patrick O’Daniel . to Maggie Luna, TCJC Peer Policy Fellow. In a Feb. 25 call with attorneys, the TDCJ said it would allow stamped greeting cards two weeks before the holiday.

“The schedules have been chosen according to the demand and the weather [of] year not necessarily a particular holiday,” said TDCJ communications director Jeremy Desel. Filtered by email.

“If they can put three holidays in place, they can just allow cards, period.”

Although some holidays, like Hanukkah, regularly fall within the approved window in which greeting cards are accepted in December, cards may still be prohibited around other religious holidays. The end of Ramadan will also coincide with the sending period of Mother’s Day this year.

Those incarcerated will still not be able to receive cards for their birthdays (unless they fall around the three approved public holidays) or other occasions.

Activists and formerly incarcerated people questioned why the TDCJ only had the capacity to process and inspect greeting cards on certain holidays, including Christmas, when many staff could request time off, but not on other occasions.

“If they can implement three holidays, they can just allow cards, period,” said Walker, who was released from Lockhart Correctional Institution in December.

A punitive policy

texas first announcement the new restrictive mail policies in January 2020, saying the stricter measures would protect both inmates and staff. In addition to the ban on greeting cards, dogs would now search visitors, and if someone reported someone carrying illegal drugs, that person would be turned away.

“When offenders hurt themselves, they hurt themselves, they hurt staff, they create a toxic environment that makes it difficult for people trying to do the right thing,” Lorie said, then Director of the TDCJ. Davis said at a press conference announcing Politics changes.

Activist organizations were quick to criticize the “Inspect to Protect” policy. More than three dozen groups, including TCJC, the ACLU of Texas and the Texas Civil Rights Project wrote a letter to the Council in protest, outlining how the policy would negatively impact rehabilitation efforts.

“Although the TDCJ has stated that ‘these policy revisions are not punitive but are necessary to enable the detection and interdiction of easily concealed drugs and technologies’, the reality of the situation is that for us (families, defenders, non-profit organizations and incarcerated individuals), they are punitive,” letter declared.

“Greeting cards are one of the few sources of joy and color in an otherwise dull and depressing atmosphere.”

“The elimination of all cards is extreme and detrimental to family and community bonds… greeting cards are one of the few sources of joy and color in an otherwise dull and depressing atmosphere.”

As COVID began to spread across the United States, maintaining family ties became more difficult. The Department also closed family visits in March 2020; those incarcerated have now gone an entire year without seeing the faces of their family members and friends.

“It hurt a lot of people’s morale not to be able to get cards from loved ones,” said Tracy Williams, who was released from the TDCJ’s Coffield Unit in December. “To not have visitors and for most of the year to be in confinement, in prison, you can [have] a lack of hope. Sometimes people don’t see the point.

Inspect 2 Protect ended many incarcerated people’s only lifeline to the outside world, Walker said. Religious groups and pastors were still sending cards en masse to detention centers, but the march’s policy prevented prisoners from receiving them.

Electronic communications could still be sent, but it’s much more difficult for some people to navigate than regular mail. Some people do not have regular access to a computer or the Internet. Others don’t know how to use them. Technological problems abound.

“I have to help them download JPay and show them how it works. And even then, some people don’t have a credit card and you have to use a credit card to charge the stamps,” Luna said. “They just make everything more difficult.”

Letter of Patrick O’Daniel, Chairman of the Board, at the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition

Twelve days before the Council sent the Feb. 24 letter to Luna, she and other activists had again urged President O’Daniel to “look at the collateral costs” of Inspect 2 Protect, criticizing it as a ” arbitrary policy”.

In the subsequent phone call with attorneys, Correctional Facilities Division Director Bobby Lumpkin claimed that Inspect 2 Protect had reduced the volume of drugs entering correctional facilities, but could not share specific numbers because it was sensitive.

When asked for hard numbers detailing the impact of Inspect 2 Protect on contraband recovered from incarcerated people, Desel said Filtered that “due to the pandemic and the changes associated with it, there are no comparable figures available”. There is little or no evidence that restrictive mail policies in prisons affect the flow of contraband.

“I don’t think the bulk of drugs entering the system go through families,” said Jennifer Erschabek, executive director of the Texas Inmate Families Association. Filtered.

decades of studies have shown that the links between prisoners and their relatives have a positive impact on recidivism rates. “Research shows that incarcerated people who have supportive relationships with family members have better outcomes, such as stability housing and employment – ​​when they return to the community,” said a 2011 Vera Institute report.

For Williams, Inspect 2 Protect reflected a more fundamental flaw in Texas’ approach to incarceration.

“People forget they are people,” he said. “It’s humans, and the greeting cards, and the lack of visits, and everything that’s happened has been very detrimental to a lot of people and who knows what effects it’s going to have on people down the line. …we need to have better ideas on how to reintegrate people into society.

Photography via Pixnio

Mika R. Pyle