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In 2019, let’s make sure incarcerated Pennsylvanians have the family contact they need and deserve | Opinion

It's basic human decency.

Keir Neuringer and the bins of unmailed packages of books that were supposed to go out to Pennsylvania prison inmates but were held back because of a lockdown.
Keir Neuringer and the bins of unmailed packages of books that were supposed to go out to Pennsylvania prison inmates but were held back because of a lockdown.Read moreDAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer

When the Department of Corrections slowed the flow of mail, books, and visitors into Pennsylvania prisons in September, department staffers said all issues would be worked out within 90 days. That has not happened, and the new policies continue to violate the human dignity of some of our most vulnerable citizens.

When people are incarcerated, whether it’s for a couple of weeks or for decades, connections with loved ones become strained. It can be heartbreakingly difficult for a mother to know her child is growing up while she’s behind bars — and of course, it most certainly is extremely difficult for that child, too. At the Prison Society, we work to help people maintain those relationships so we have seen those challenges firsthand.

In September, the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections sharply restricted visitors and mail going into prisons to stem the flow of narcotics.

There has got to be a less invasive way to address this problem.

A basic component of being treated as a human is that you can stay in touch with your family. You can receive a visitor or get a Christmas card or book. The DOC trampled all of that with one stroke of a pen.

Today, family members send letters to a central processing facility in Florida. There, staff open them, scan them, and email them to Pennsylvania prisons, where they’re printed and delivered to prisoners. When the Department of Corrections set up this system — overnight and with no implementation plan — they promised to resolve issues within 90 days. That time period elapsed a couple of weeks ago, and yet at the Prison Society, we continue to hear from families that the system isn’t working.

Some letters are getting cut off in the scans. In some cases it’s taken weeks for the mail to arrive, or it just never gets there. Inmates are getting letters addressed to other inmates. Pictures are coming out blurry or just aren’t scanned at all.

» READ MORE: ‘Paper soaked in loved ones’ tears': How mail helps Pa. prisoners stay grounded | Perspective

At the same time, the Department of Corrections implemented changes to the food policy in waiting rooms. All vending machines were emptied in September, allegedly because drugs were entering the facility through them. Since then, the DOC has managed to restart vending machines in only six of 24 prisons.

The Prison Society runs buses to help loved ones visit family members imprisoned sometimes hundreds of miles away. The lack of vending machines — and the ban on bringing in outside food — means that when families arrive in the waiting room, they have nothing to eat, often for an hour or two as they wait for their loved one to be brought out for the visit.

Many families — especially those with young children or members who are diabetic or have other ailments — have told us that they cannot visit until this situation changes. Indeed, our bus ridership is down 28 percent since the vending machines were removed.

Families often plan their visits months in advance. Without knowing when they can go back to visiting, already strained family ties are being pushed to breaking.

There has been some good news. The DOC worked with organizations that send books into prisons to find a way to make that work. A coalition including the ACLU is suing the DOC on behalf of lawyers who argue that legal mail needs to be confidential, and that the mail policies violate this constitutional requirement. And we’ve seen an outpouring of opposition to the DOC changes across the state. Protesters showed up at the Christmas tree lighting in the Capitol building in Harrisburg, and at a holiday event at the governor’s mansion, to express their opposition. People across the state are watching, and they’re angry.

» READ MORE: People in Pa. prisons are smuggling medicine to treat their addictions because the state won’t provide it | Opinion

Research — and common sense — tells us that staying connected to family supports is what allows a person to be healthy and reintegrate into the community. The strength of these connections is a primary indicator of an inmate’s ability to return home successfully. But maintaining a family connection with someone in prison is really hard — and the DOC is just making it harder.

The Prison Society’s mission is to ensure humane prison conditions. Central to that is making sure people on the inside have valuable community contact. These changes are counter to our mission, and to basic human decency.

Claire Shubik-Richards is executive director of the Pennsylvania Prison Society.