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Analysis

Protecting the Fundamental Right to Mail in Prison

Undermining the Postal Service hurts incarcerated individuals and their families.

We face a loom­ing crisis at the U.S. Postal Service. While it affects us all, a reduc­tion in postal service would prove espe­cially devast­at­ing for those behind bars, many of whom depend on mail to contact their loved ones and legal coun­sel.

Pres­id­ent Trump has admit­ted publicly that his oppos­i­tion to fund­ing the USPS is inten­ded to prevent mail-in voting during the general elec­tion. This past June, he appoin­ted Louis DeJoy as post­mas­ter general. Since assum­ing his role, DeJoy has made numer­ous changes, such as remov­ing mail sort­ing machines and mail­boxes, shuff­ling top person­nel, and elim­in­at­ing over­time for postal work­ers. The intense back­lash may — or may not — have altered these plans.

With increas­ingly limited means of commu­nic­a­tion for those behind bars due to the pandemic, mail remains crit­ic­ally import­ant to incar­cer­ated people and their famil­ies. In response to Covid-19, many correc­tional facil­it­ies have limited in-person visits. As of August 18, the federal govern­ment and 16 states have suspen­ded all forms of visit­a­tion in their correc­tional facil­it­ies. Twenty-seven states have suspen­ded all visit­a­tion except for legal visits, and nine states allow visit­a­tion only with certain precau­tions in place.

Remote commu­nic­a­tion — by phone call, email, or video confer­en­cing — allows some incar­cer­ated indi­vidu­als to reach the outside world, but inter­net access in prison remains restric­ted. There are also high costs for these types of commu­nic­a­tion. For example, as of 2019, the pris­ons in at least six states charged at least $3 for a 15-minute in-state phone call. In 12 states, at least one jail charges $12 or more for a 15-minute in-state phone call. For many people behind bars with limited finan­cial means, the cost of making a phone call can be nearly impossible to afford. While many jails and pris­ons are offer­ing free phone calls during Covid-19, these policies are unlikely to last beyond the pandemic.

While some incar­cer­ated indi­vidu­als may be able to take advant­age of remote commu­nic­a­tion options, the USPS remains a life­line for millions of Amer­ic­ans behind bars. The right to mail is so funda­mental for the incar­cer­ated that it is included in the United Nations’ minimum rules for the treat­ment of pris­on­ers and the Geneva Conven­tion. Pris­ons and jails handle millions of pieces of mail each year, with Virgini­a’s correc­tional system alone processing over 1.4 million pieces of mail annu­ally. Notably, this latest mail crisis is not a first for those behind bars. Over the years, budget cuts and drug enforce­ment policies have restric­ted mail access for incar­cer­ated indi­vidu­als in many states. Such changes have even promp­ted protests from incar­cer­ated indi­vidu­als.

In addi­tion to impinging upon incar­cer­ated indi­vidu­als’ rights, limit­ing access to mail would greatly impair commu­nic­a­tions between incar­cer­ated indi­vidu­als and their famil­ies. Topeka K. Sam, the founder and exec­ut­ive director of the Ladies of Hope Ministry and senior advisor to New York­ers United for Justice, describes how: “[It] means that moth­ers, fath­ers, broth­ers, sisters who are eager to connect with their famil­ies, with the only form of commu­nic­a­tion they really have, are being silenced. The emotional implic­a­tions of not hear­ing from loved ones are signi­fic­ant and unac­cept­able.” Nearly 5 million chil­dren in the United States have an incar­cer­ated parent. In some states, the impact is espe­cially severe, with 20 percent of chil­dren in Arkan­sas, 15 percent in Kentucky, and 13 percent in Arizona having an incar­cer­ated parent.

Mail is also crucial to incar­cer­ated indi­vidu­als’ abil­ity to commu­nic­ate confid­en­tially with their legal coun­sel, a right guar­an­teed by the Sixth Amend­ment. Norman Reimer, exec­ut­ive director of the National Asso­ci­ation of Crim­inal Defense Attor­neys, explains that “any effort to degrade the USPS is an attack on the consti­tu­tional and human rights of incar­cer­ated indi­vidu­als.” In fact, attor­ney-client mail is afforded special confid­en­tial treat­ment by correc­tional offi­cials. Further, all incar­cer­ated indi­vidu­als are entitled to send legal mail regard­less of their abil­ity to pay for post­age.

Consid­er­ing that the USPS processes nearly 500 million pieces of mail every day, any attempt to “knee­cap” the service threatens to limit access to disab­il­ity, Social Secur­ity, and veteran bene­fits; constrict rural Amer­ica’s connectiv­ity; delay deliv­ery of medic­a­tion and prescrip­tions; limit essen­tial deliv­er­ies for those with medical vulner­ab­il­it­ies; and slow the payment and receipt of bills and paychecks — all during a nation­wide economic down­turn and pandemic.

The Trump admin­is­tra­tion’s changes to the USPS may be on hold tempor­ar­ily — but seri­ous doubts persist. Regard­less, the mail is crit­ical to our elec­tion and to vulner­able communit­ies across Amer­ica — partic­u­larly incar­cer­ated popu­la­tions who are often over­looked and seldom heard. Congress must continue to monitor the admin­is­tra­tion of the USPS to ensure contin­ued services for every­one, includ­ing those behind bars who need access to mail during this unpre­ced­en­ted time.