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Texas Prisoners Complain About Delays to Digitized Mail

Jay Dan Gumm, who runs the Forgiven Felons halfway house and hosts a podcast of the same name, says the mail for many Texas prisoners is getting stuck at the Dallas scanning center.

(TNS) — As if the troubled Texas prison system needs another crisis, here’s the latest involving inmate mail delivery.

A three-month-old system converts incoming U.S. mail for all state prisoners into a digital format. This is done at an undisclosed Dallas location.

You no longer send letters, drawings and photos to the inmates. Now, all this must get sent to a Dallas post office box where it is retrieved and brought to the unknown Dallas location where the scanning takes place. Eventually, after further review at the recipient’s prison, the digital mail is delivered to inmates’ state-supplied tablets.

Original paper versions are eventually discarded. The recipient never gets to hold the originals.

The burdensome procedures have caused massive mail delays rarely seen before.

Inmates, along with family members and prisoner rights groups, tell The Watchdog that such lengthy delays are disruptive.

In a worst-case scenario, some fear prisoners on the verge of release might not get accepted into a halfway house. Without their mail, they are unable to apply.

Jay Dan Gumm, who runs the Forgiven Felons halfway house and hosts a podcast of the same name, says the mail “gets stuck” at the Dallas scanning center. He knows of 100 inmates whose halfway house applications are stuck.

Prisoners were told the new setup would delay mail an extra three days, but delays have stretched to three weeks and now up to two months in some cases.

It’s easy to see why. With 130,000 prisoners in the state system, if each inmate were to receive four postal letters a week, that means a half million pieces of mail must be opened, searched, scanned and then sent to the mail room of each prison for final inspection before delivery to inmates’ tablets.

The scanning process is run by Carrollton-based Securus Technologies.

Family and friends of inmates were told several months ago to stop sending mail directly to a prison. If mail is sent to a prison instead of a Dallas post office box, it will be rejected, prison officials tell The Watchdog.

The point of this massive change, officials say, is to stop the flow of contraband into prisons. They cite cases where books and letters are laced with illegal drugs.

During an across-the-board September lockdown, correction officers said they found 587 weapons and 584 cell phones. They also found about 1,000 sheets and 1,200 stamps laced with methamphetamines, fentanyl, synthetic marijuana and other drugs.

Texas Department of Criminal Justice spokeswoman Amanda Hernandez says most prison homicides are drug-related. By recasting mail deliveries, they hope to cut down on violence.

More than a dozen states have switched to the new system.

A study by the Prison Policy Initiative concluded that mail scanning doesn’t make prisons safer and has “no effect” curbing drug smuggling.

TDCJ’s Hernandez says, “The expansion of the [digitizing] program was quick, but necessary to combat contraband entering the facilities. As such, there is a delay in some mail being delivered to inmates. TDCJ is working with Securus to resolve this as quickly as possible.”

Securus spokeswoman Jade Trombetta released a statement saying that they provided a tablet to every state prisoner, which allows them to send and receive e-messages.

The statement said, “To help resolve the delays as soon as possible and maintain timely service moving forward, we have invested in an additional scanner, a high-speed mail sorter, three quality control stations and more staff with overtime hours. ... We understand the importance of connection and apologize for the frustration our consumers have experienced.”

Changes in Texas prison mail

The prison mail system has changed, sometimes, if rarely, for the better. Under the old rules, inmates could only receive greeting cards for Mother’s Day, Father’s Day and Christmas. Under the new system, cards will be digitized and there’s no limit.

Newspapers, magazines and books can get sent directly to prisons, if from the publishers. Legal mail and media mail also goes directly to prisoners.

Photos sent from families will be digitized and only appear on tablets. If a sender wants photos back, they should include a self-addressed, stamped envelope.

If a prisoner doesn’t have a state-supplied tablet, black and white printouts are supposed to be given to inmates.

Rules for outgoing mail have not changed.

What they say

Vickie Tucker of McKinney, mother of an inmate, told me that since early September “I have sent three cards and an article from the newspaper. He has not received any of them. This is a sad situation since contact with family is supposed to be encouraged to help with the inmate’s rehabilitation.”

Linda Franco of Cedar Park says, “I write to several inmates who don’t have anyone.”

Her recipients have not received her letters.

“There is no indication when this will be fixed,” she said. “Mail is so vital to inmates.”

One inmate who asked that their name not be used because they feared repercussions, told me: “Yes, it’s horrible. We’re not getting anything that is sent to that Dallas address. We can’t get the religious materials we need for Bible studies. We’re missing college materials for tests. We are all very upset.”

‘Reminder of their humanity’

I haven’t mentioned how the loss of physical objects — photos, drawings, cards and more — can’t possibly enhance an inmate’s mindset.

Molly Petchenik, a staff attorney for the Texas Civil Rights Project, told me that waiting three weeks for delayed mail “can be excruciating.”

She said, “This reminds them of their humanity, their family and home. That’s so incredibly important to get through their sentences.”

I asked the TDCJ spokesperson what happens when an inmate is released. Do they get to keep the data from it — including past mail and photos — with them when they leave?

She said that part of the program is a work “in progress.”

Sounds to me like the whole system is very much a work in progress.

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