On November 1, 2017, the Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC), implemented strict changes to prison mail policy that will discourage inmates’ friends and family from using USPS. Officially the policy aims to stop the flow of contraband, including controlled substances, into state prisons. However, as Rand Gould reported for the San Francisco Bay View, the policy will actually “stop prisoners, their families and friends from sending mail via the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) and force them into buying email ‘stamps’ from JPay,” allowing JPay and the MDOC to “rake in profits” and closely monitor all mail.
JPay is a private company, based in Florida, that provides money transfer, email, and video visitation services. According to a 2012 Bloomberg report, it services over one million prisoners in at least 35 states. As the Bay View reported, JPay is a subsidiary of Securus, the second-largest prison phone company in the United States.
Some of the new MDOC restrictions on incoming mail include mail being rejected if it is stained, not in a white envelope, has any sticker (or label) on it, or is not written in blue or black ink, or pencil. Sending and receiving mail by USPS is a US citizen’s right as freedom of speech and press is protected by the First Amendment, Gould wrote, but for Michigan inmates it will now be tightly controlled by the MDOC. Further, critics speculate that the new policy is the first step on a slippery slope that will lead to the shutdown of prison mail rooms, forcing inmates to use the JPay system exclusively. As it stands, the new policies effectively restrict inmates’ access to newspapers, magazines, and possibly court mailings, as Efren Paredes, Jr. reported in an August, 2017 report for the Voice of Detroit.
The new changes come disguised as an effort to curb contraband being smuggled into prisons, although there is little evidence or research to support it as an effective measure. Meanwhile, little is done to areas that studies have shown to be significant contraband avenues: Data suggests prison employees are responsible for up to 80% of prison contraband traffic. Furthermore, discrepancies identified in the new policy hint at a blatant disregard for consistent lawmaking–for example, inmates’ own funds (provided by friends and family) will be used to repackage all incoming envelopes, even ones which meet the criteria.
With increasingly restrictive regulations, those with the most influence over prison policies safeguard an increasingly isolated “prison state” within the nation. If prison policies can be made so easily on such untested ground, limiting civil rights without external scrutiny, then the US public is failing in its civic duty to ensure that lawmakers acting in society’s interest, rather than serving their financial allies and profiting from their own policy-making.
Rand Gould, “New Mail Policy in Michigan Prisons: Billionaires Profit at the Expense of Prisoners, Their Families and Friends, and U.S. Postal Service,” San Francisco Bay View, January 2, 2018, http://sfbayview.com/2018/01/new-mail-policy-in-michigan-prisons-billionaires-profit-at-the-expense-of-prisoners-their-families-and-friends-and-u-s-postal-service/.
Efren Paredes, Jr., “MDOC Implements Strict New Prisoner Mail Policy Changes,” Voice of Detroit, August 23, 2017,http://voiceofdetroit.net/2017/08/23/mdoc-implements-strict-new-prisoner-mail-policy-changes/.
Student Researcher: Courtney Hale (College of Western Idaho)
Faculty Evaluator: Michelle Mahoney (College of Western Idaho)