The windows to the outside world are about to shrink for prisoners in San Diego County under an upcoming change in jail mail policy.
As the county absorbs hundreds, and ultimately thousands, of state inmates under the prison-realignment measures signed by Gov. Jerry Brown in April, many changes are underway at local lock-ups. Among them is a policy limiting incoming prisoner mail to postcards. Prisoners will still be able to receive periodicals and legal mail, but letters are off the list. Prisoners may continue sending letters.
Cmdr. Will Brown with the San Diego County Sheriff's Department says the intent is to block contraband from the system as the population increases. He notes that the new arrivals are a different kind of inmate who'll be staying longer than the county is used to.
“They try to smuggle everything,” Brown says. “They try to smuggle drugs into the jails, smuggle cash into the jails. I have no idea what a person in jail would do with a $5 bill, but that's just some of the stuff they attempt to do.”
Pierre Alexander, who works with offenders and at-risk youth as chief operating officer of the LIFE Community Development Foundation, worries about the emotional impact the policy will have on inmates and, consequently, jail safety and inmates' chances of successful reintegration into society. His experience is firsthand: He was released in 2006 after 24 years in prison. Every day of it, mail call was a moment of hope.
“Correspondence is the main thing that people on the inside look forward to,” Alexander says. “As long as you know you have some outside support sending you words of encouragement to brighten up your spirit, it gives you the ammunition to fight against the negativity that goes on daily inside those walls.”
Postcards are better than nothing, he says, but it's hard to fit anything meaningful beyond, “Hello,” “How are you?” and “See you next week.”
The American Civil Liberties Union agrees and has challenged several postcard-only policies enacted in the last year in Nevada, Washington, Michigan, Florida and Colorado, citing the First Amendment and privacy rights of both inmates and their relations on the outside. The organization is currently “batting a thousand,” says ACLU National Prison Project Director David Fathi.
“This is just the latest bad idea spreading around the country in the jail industry,” Fathi says.