BOP’s Transition to Scanning Prison Mail Raises Privacy Concerns
For most incarcerated people, letters and greeting cards provide comfort and motivation. Yet many BOP facilities have stopped allowing prisoners to have mail . Instead, prison officials scan or copy mail and provide the copies to incarcerated people. According to prison officials, the move to copies will stop the flow of drugs from entering the prison.
The copying process makes prison mail less personal.
Incarcerated people, their friends and family and advocates have raised concerns with this process already. On a simple level, the loss of tangible mail is significant. Being able to physically touch handwritten letters, photos and drawings from loved ones is crucial to prison survival.
An incarcerated person in Pennsylvania Federal Prison explained to The Intercept why. He described tracing his girlfriend’s handwriting with his finger. He also recalled the smell of perfume on the letters filling his cell. “Her letters elicited rare feelings of intimacy in an otherwise cold environment,” he said. But, after the replacement of physical mail with scanned versions, he explained, “It’s just like receiving a fake dollar bill.”
It also raises privacy concerns for everyone involved.
But the transition to scanning and copying prison mail raises even deeper concerns, too. Many facilities, including the BOP-operated ones, are turning to a private company for the copying process. Smart Communication’s MailGuard system is like a virtual mailroom for jails and prisons across the country.
MailGuard scans and uploads copies of incoming mail, which is then available in the prison. Through this process, MailGuard can access the sender’s information. This includes the names of families and friends, as well as their residential addresses, contact numbers, IP addresses, location, devices and more.
Now BOP facilities are turning to MailGuard, too. The BOP is silent on the numbers and locations of facilities using the scanning method. But the BOP’s silence about its future plans and policies is concerning. That’s particularly true because of MailGuard’s use of private data.
This could impact the attorney-client privilege as well.
This process shouldn’t impact legal mail, which prison officials cannot read. But, “The Bureau has the authority to open, read, and inspect general correspondence prior to inmate access,” its policy states. If officials rely more on the scanning and copying process, there’s a greater chance that officials wrongfully read protected mail.