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‘I feel hopeless’: Families call new Pa. prison mail policy devastating

Some children are no longer allowed to send drawings to their parents: Families don't want their letters, photos and children's drawings to be logged in a searchable Department of Corrections database for surveillance purposes.

Protestors outside a fundraiser for Gov. Wolf say the mail policy is devastating family connections.
Protestors outside a fundraiser for Gov. Wolf say the mail policy is devastating family connections.Read moreSAMANTHA MELAMED / Staff

The pile of drawings in Lori Robinson's house grows thicker by the week, creations her 7-year-old son, who's autistic, wants to send to Robinson's husband, the only father figure her son has ever known. But recently, Robinson told her son he's not allowed to send any more drawings, or the letters he was learning to write.

"It's good for him to develop those skills, and he would always mail them to his dad," she said. "But I'm not comfortable with that anymore. I don't want my 7-year-old autistic child's stuff to be able to be searched in some database in Florida."

It's a response to new mail policies in the Pennsylvania state prisons, where her husband, Hakeem Robinson, is serving a life sentence.

Under the policy — the first of its kind in a state prison system — incoming mail must be addressed to a Florida company, Smart Communications; from there it's scanned, digitally forwarded to printers at each state prison and stored indefinitely for ongoing surveillance purposes. The Department of Corrections said this and other restrictions, including an entirely different but also controversial policy for managing legal mail, are necessary to stamp out drug smuggling by mail — but, a month in, families say it's devastating one of their few means of maintaining connections with incarcerated loved ones.

Their complaints include missing pages, misdirected letters, weekslong delays, and copies so poor as to be illegible. Though the DOC says it is working out the kinks and that all 25 prisons now have color printers, some inmates say the grainy printouts of photos onto copy paper — sometimes shrunken to fit photos four to a page — continue to arrive in black and white. For others, the notion that their personal correspondence would be stored in a database, equipped with technology to convert printed materials to searchable text, has deterred them from sending mail at all.

Robert Pezzeca, a lifer incarcerated at Dallas state prison for the 1998 murder of his roommate in Bensalem, said that lately the mail call that was once a highlight of his day has become a source of frustration.

"On two occasions, I've received only the photocopy of the envelope that the mail came in, but not the letters," he said. He filed a grievance asking for the mail to be reprinted, but it was rejected. "So I don't expect to ever get my mail."

>> READ MORE: Pa. prison books and mail policies draw protests, petitions, and possible legal challenges

Smart Communications chief executive Jon Logan said Pennsylvania was the company's first state-prison contract, though it works with more than 100 county agencies. More than half of those use its "MailGuard" service, which was launched in 2016, just as prisons and jails around the nation began exploring ways to limit or eliminate postal mail. In recent weeks, the 20-worker company has ballooned to 50 employees to keep up with the volume of 3,000 to 8,000 pieces of mail each day. Logan said there are now two- to three-day wait times, but when new equipment is in place, he expects same-day turnaround.

Logan said the scanners are of very high caliber and that each piece of mail goes through a four-step quality-control process, so he believes the mail should not be degraded by the time it arrives in prisoners' hands.

"There are a lot of people looking to poke holes in this because they don't like change," he said.

The Department of Corrections contracted with the vendor through an emergency-procurement process, which means there was no public solicitation or competitive bidding process.

"They were the only ones with correctional experience to do it within a week. That was our timeline," Corrections Secretary John Wetzel said at a community meeting in South Philadelphia on Oct. 11, called by members of the Legislative Black Caucus to address families' concerns. He said digital delivery was deemed superior to other ideas the department had contemplated, such as limiting mail to postcards only.

The Department first alluded to the plan in an Aug. 21 announcement; the contract — worth $376,000 a  month, or close to $16 million over three years — is dated Sept. 5.

Wetzel said the emergency procurement was justified because of a number of staff illnesses related to incidental exposure to new, synthetic drugs. (He said he did not agree with experts in medical toxicology who've cast doubt on that narrative.) He also cited other indications of an out-of-control drug market: 23 inmate drug overdoses in August. That month, he said, 1 percent of random drug tests came back positive. That's three times higher than has been typical.

>> READ MORE: Pa. prisons spend $15M after guards were sickened by K2. But what if it was just in their heads?

Wetzel acknowledged that there had been delays in mail delivery, and said he had met with the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts to seek special accommodations for those who may have missed legal deadlines.

Numerous studies have shown that incarcerated people who maintain supportive family relationships fare better after they return home from prison. A survey of incarcerated people by the  Vera Institute of Justice, a nonprofit think tank in New York, found that letters were the most common means for keeping in contact with family, and that more than 92 percent of prisoners stay in touch that way.

At the meeting, many comments from the crowd, submitted on index cards, spoke to the impact of the mail policy.

"I feel hopeless that I cannot now send my brother a photo from a family event with a personal message written on it. A photo is a visit from a loved one faraway," one read.

Another lamented: "My mother is considered to our family as a card concierge. She can spend hours at a Rite Aid or a CVS reading cards and picking out the best card for any occasion. It has to be the perfect card. She underlines and adds words to it, or cute little drawings. Our brother's birthday is coming up in November, and she already has his card. She'll plan to send it out on a certain day so he'll get it on his actual birth date. How personal do you think a scanned copy of that card is? And it may not arrive on his birthday, as she has done for 22 years."

At a protest outside a fund-raiser for Gov. Wolf at Yards Brewery in North Philadelphia, Oneida Taylor, 53, said she thought that the process had effectively cut off communication with a friend at Phoenix state prison: "If I want him to know something, if he gets the letter, it already happened a week or two ago."

Angela Baker, 50, who married a lifer named Eric Jolson just two days before postal mail was terminated, said she mailed her husband their marriage license; it came through in a double-sided photocopy.

Yvonne Queen, 62, agreed: Her son's mail has been taking two weeks to arrive, and when he receives photos he finds them distorted or of such poor quality that he can barely make out the faces.

She and others are equally dismayed with the situation in the visiting room, where a 90-day moratorium on food-vending — visitors' only access to food — has led many to curtail or cancel their visits. Queen, a diabetic, said she's had to cut her visits considerably shorter. "I try to maintain two to three hours, but it's hard."

Lorraine "DeeDee" Haw of Philadelphia has canceled plans to visit her son, Phillip Ocampo. Since Ocampo is serving a life sentence at Smithfield state prison — a four-hour drive from Philadelphia — she would normally visit for several hours at a time. But she can't bring her 5-year-old great-granddaughter to see him without any access to food or drink.

Haw is hopeful that she'll be able to visit when food service is restored. But the permanent elimination of mail service feels like a lasting blow.

For nearly 22 years, Haw and Ocampo have played an ongoing tic-tac-toe game through the mail — a trivial amusement that made their relationship feel slightly more normal.

"He would try to let me win and I would try to let him win, and neither one of us would win," she said. "Now it won't be the same. And if I write to him, he won't be getting a letter that I touched, that I cried over, my feelings in the letter. He'll get a copy of something."

She said she's stopped sending photos, and Ocampo's 5-year-old granddaughter no longer sends the crayon-on-construction-paper drawings she makes for Ocampo — fanciful images of the entire family, reduced to stick figures but reunited.

"She has a vivid imagination," Haw said. "We continue to let her draw what she wants; we just have to keep them."