Last week, the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections made an announcement: It has ended mail delivery for thousands of prisoners and Pennsylvania residents. Instead, our letters are being sent to the state of Florida, to be searched for contraband, then scanned, and forwarded via email. All original photos, letters, drawings, and cards will then be destroyed.
But, did Secretary of Corrections John Wetzel and his policymakers take into account the effect that letter-writing has on the psyche of prisoners and their loved ones?
It's more than just a letter!
To the prisoner, an original letter represents a close connection that one can't even find through a phone call. It's the scent of a loved one. It's knowing that your loved one touched and held that piece of paper, especially if that person has passed. It's receiving a handwritten note. It's the kiss by a wife or girlfriend, forever marked in lipstick. It's paper soaked in our loved ones' tears — tears of love, tears of pain, tears of joy. No scanner can scan your loved ones' tears, and then email them to you.
I personally have letters dated as far back as January 2002 with tears from loved ones. There are days that I reread those letters, and they continue to carry me. Just this past August, I received a homemade birthday card with great meaning from a loving friend. I wrote to her and said that's probably the last card I'm ever going to get upstate.
But, most of all, I'm saddened for my peers who are fathers, because they're being robbed of letters, cards, and drawings from their children. I have entered prison cells with walls covered with children's drawings. When I've taken interest, my peers light up with joy, expressing their love for their children, their elation that their child has taking the time to make a drawing or a card for their daddy.
Some prisoners use drugs — but most of us don't. Yet, all of us are facing the consequences.
Understandably, there is a need to protect the health and safety of all people, but should it come at this extreme cost? The policing of all publications, and the removal of our photos and letters, I believe it's an extreme act.
There are other solutions than outsourcing the handling of our mail on a $4 million contract. Surely, Pennsylvania taxpayers would save money if the Department of Corrections takes on the task of inspecting the mail for contraband. And if there is a need to use a mail-forwarding service, it should be reserved for prisoners who violate the rules.
What we looked forward to in our letters — that's now been stripped away from us. Its core, the heart of our letters is gone. It's what allowed us to experience how much our loved ones care about us and, in that connection, we find solace and hope for a better life in the future. It's what helps us find our true selves, so that upon our return to society, we can find our place in our community and maintain our freedom.