This week, the New York City Board of Corrections is poised to strike a blow to one of the few sources of connection to the outside world for people incarcerated in city jails: letters from home. 

The Department of Correction announced last year that it intends to hire a private contractor to digitize—and then destroy—all non-legal mail sent to those in jail. Under the plan, the incarcerated recipients of mail would receive scans of their letters on DOC-provided electronic tablets, depriving them of the original cards, drawings, and letters. Before going forward with the plan, the DOC needs approval from the Board of Corrections, which will hold a hearing today to consider whether to authorize the use of this new surveillance technology.

The board should reject the DOC’s misguided plans. The DOC has argued that mail digitization is needed to combat drug use in the city’s jails, while still allowing those incarcerated to communicate with those on the outside. But their arguments don’t stand up to scrutiny. At the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, where I work, we’ve tracked similar efforts across the country, and we’ve seen these practices dramatically undermine the expressive and privacy rights of both incarcerated and unincarcerated people. 

The DOC’s plans would compromise meaningful communication between incarcerated people and their loved ones. Sending and receiving letters is a lifeline for people who are incarcerated while they await trial. Physical mail offers a kind of intimacy that other forms of communication cannot, allowing people to hold onto something that was also held by a family member or friend, to trace their handwriting, and to revisit important notes and drawings again and again during stressful moments. By helping incarcerated individuals stay in touch with loved ones, religious advisors, educators, and substance abuse counselors, physical correspondence also facilitates their transition back into the community.

Scanning mail drains it of much of its expressive value: social science research shows that physical objects like letters carry emotional and expressive meaning that their digital counterparts do not. 

But the damage to expression of mail digitization runs even deeper. The DOC has suggested that digitizing mail won’t compromise people’s privacy rights, because its policies on when officers may read incoming mail will not change. Yet it is impossible to ignore the invasive new surveillance capabilities scaffolded to mail digitization services. Physical mail in New York City jails is currently opened and inspected briefly in front of its recipients. By and large, mail belongs to its recipient after it’s been approved. That is not the case under mail digitization, where a scanned copy lives on in a searchable database, a click away from private telecommunications contractors, DOC employees, and anyone else to whom the DOC has granted access. Even assuming the DOC will abide by its current rules, the prospect of officials having easy access to a vast store of everyone’s mail jeopardizes everyone’s privacy and free expression.

Most contractors explicitly advertise mail digitization services as surveillance tools. Securus Technologies, a private telecommunications contractor for correctional facilities, states that its mail digitization service “dramatically improves investigative intelligence,” and Smart Communications, another contractor, markets its service as offering “a searchable database and ... whole new field of intelligence.” These contractors typically pledge to retain electronic copies of mail for years, if not indefinitely. They enable those with access to mail databases to conduct individualized or system-wide keyword searches, at any time, for any reason. Some providers even pledge to track anyone who has ever sent mail into the facility, collecting information like IP addresses, GPS locations, and banking details—information they make available for law enforcement use. It is chilling to know that merely sending a letter to a loved one behind bars will subject your writings, physical movements, and financial accounts to intrusive surveillance by both the state and a private company. It’s no surprise, then, that when faced with similar measures in other prisons across the country, some family members and incarcerated individuals have limited or stopped their correspondence with loved ones.  

The DOC argues that, as draconian as mail digitization is, drastic measures are needed to combat drug use and overdoses in the city’s jails. But it would be a mistake to put faith in mail digitization as a solution to this problem. The evidence that drug-laced paper is a substantial problem behind bars is lacking. Instead, last year, during a criminal trial involving the bribing of correction officers to smuggle drugs into Rikers Island, a DOC investigator testified that drugs “usually” come into the facilities through staff. And in Pennsylvania and New Mexico—states that banned physical mail—drug test positivity rates actually increased after the adoption of the new mail policies; in Missouri, monthly drug overdoses did.

There is no trade-off here between reducing drug use in city jails and encouraging free expression and family connection behind bars. Mail digitization does little to promote the former, but irreparably damages the latter. The board should affirm the importance of expression and communication to incarcerated people and their loved ones by rejecting the DOC’s dehumanizing and invasive proposal. 

Update: on January 10, 2023, the Board of Corrections announced it would convene a special internal committee. The committee will assess the Department of Corrections' proposal and will work with the DOC to address concerns raised by the board and by members of the public.