Emergency: Physical Mail Could Be Eliminated at Federal Prisons

A pilot program initiated under Trump converts mail to electronic scans. Biden hasn’t reversed it, and critics call it abusive and harmful to inmates and families.

In his first-week blitz of executive actions, Joe Biden directed the Justice Department to not renew federal contracts with the private prison industry. “[W]e must reduce profit-based incentives to incarcerate by phasing out the Federal Government’s reliance on privately operated criminal detention facilities,” the order stated.

But the profit motive will still exist in the federal prison system, even after private prison operations contracts are exhausted. Food, medicine, telecommunications, banking, and practically every other service for incarcerated people are almost entirely privatized, through a network of subcontractors. Critics charge that these contractors prioritize their own balance sheets over the well-being of prisoners and their families, and that the services they provide are often exploitative, of low quality, and infringe on inmates’ civil rights.

One such contractor is poised to gain control of the means by which people communicate with those in the federal prison system. A company called Smart Communications has an exclusive pilot program with the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) called MailGuard, which eliminates nonlegal physical mail in federal prison facilities and transfers it to either crude paper printouts or electronic files accessed through tablets or kiosks.