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Pennsylvania Prisons Hired A Private Company To Intercept And Store Prisoners’ Mail

The company is being paid $4 million a year to open and scan prisoners’ mail into a searchable database.

A screenshot of a MailGuard advertisement that shows how employees process prisoner mail.

Pennsylvania Prisons Hired A Private Company To Intercept And Store Prisoners’ Mail

The company is being paid $4 million a year to open and scan prisoners’ mail into a searchable database.


A new policy has put Pennsylvania prisoners’ communications under intense surveillance in the name of stopping contraband drugs. On Sept. 5, the state’s Department of Corrections (DOC) announced that it would be largely restricting mail to prisoners. Effective immediately, all incoming mail would be sent to a private company in Florida, Smart Communications, for scanning into a searchable database. Prisoners would then receive photocopies of the incoming mail—and the originals would be shredded. The DOC has also banned prisoners from receiving books from vendors—including book donation organizations like Books Through Bars. Instead, prisoners will have the option of paying for ebooks via tablets that cost over $147 each.

The DOC implemented this policy after it said prison staff members were exposed to drugs. On Aug. 29, staff members at a Pennsylvania state prison were taken to the hospital because of alleged exposure to a substance that the DOC later identified as sorbitan trioleate, a chemical compound found in a wide range of household products. Later that day, the secretary of the DOC, John Wetzel, announced an immediate lockdown of the entire state prison system. The department’s press release stated that “multiple staff members [had] been sickened by unknown substances during the past few weeks.” The wide range of reported symptoms included elevated blood pressure, dizziness, migraines, and tingling extremities. One guard reported developing bumps along his hairline. When the lockdown was lifted on Sept. 10, the department stated that “toxicology results confirmed the presence of synthetic cannabinoid in multiple instances of staff exposure,” but did not specify which synthetic cannabinoid was found. “There are 30-40 types of synthetic cannabinoid and the field tests did not identify the type,” DOC spokesperson Amy Worden said in an email.

In two out of the 25 incidents where prison staff members received medical treatment since the beginning of August, field test results came back positive for synthetic cannabinoid, according to the DOC website. Worden also said the number of drugs found in the first eight months of 2018 (2,034 drug finds) have surpassed the amount found in 2017 (1,966 drug finds).

However, toxicology experts have poked holes in the official version of events, stating that simply touching K2 should not cause exposure to the drug. They have suggested that it might be “mass psychogenic illness,” where symptoms are similar to anxiety. The DOC has also not released any biological testing results, such as blood or urine tests, which would prove drug exposure.

A $15 million response

Despite the questions surrounding the alleged drug exposure, the DOC’s new security plans will cost Pennsylvanians $15 million, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer. The state is paying Smart Communications $4 million a year to scan and forward the mail, and will spend an additional $1.9 million annually on copy machines and paper to photocopy legal mail.

On its website, Smart Communications describes its MailGuard service as a “virtual mailroom” that digitizes all incoming mail and then feeds it into a database that contains “advanced security filters.” The company promotes the service by saying it will “dramatically improve intelligence capabilities” and “eliminate the last form of undocumented, uncontrolled communication.” Smart Communications did not share its MailGuard privacy policy, but the DOC said the company would retain copies of mail in its database for seven years.

Mark (not his real name), a person currently incarcerated in the Pennsylvania state prison system, said in a letter to a prisoner rights advocacy group that he thinks “the real reason [for the policy change] is to further monetize incarceration,” adding that “this policy has effectively precluded prisoners from obtaining knowledge.”

The Abolitionist Law Center says it has received complaints from prisoners and their families that include privacy concerns with an outside corporation having access to all their mail, accounts of the photocopies being unreadable or incomplete, and color photographs being photocopied in black and white (Worden said the DOC is in the process of installing color printers in all their facilities).  “It’s one thing to know strangers are perusing through the most intimate details of your life and it’s completely jarring to now know that a whole corporation is copying the information,” Bret Grote, legal director of the center, said.

This additional layer may also add more room for error and confusion.

“We had one report of outgoing mail being wrongly sent to Florida where it was copied and returned to the incarcerated sender instead of the addressee,” Grote said. “We have no confidence that similar mistakes will not continue to occur.”

Sean Damon, a paralegal and organizer with the Amistad Law Project, said the new policy will most likely result in self-censorship. Some prisoners have asked loved ones not to send them mail, multiple organizers said. “An incarcerated person may not want a private company to know about them and their family’s medical problems. They may not want a private company to know about grievances that they have,” Damon said.

“The real thing that is frightening to me is not only the overreach by the government but the self-censorship that it’s going to entail and the chilling effect that’s currently happening on family members and their loved ones.”

Legal mail endangered

The new policy of photocopying legal mail has effectively ended mailed communication between lawyers and their clients because they cannot guarantee confidentiality. The prison retains the original copy of the mail for 15 days.

Several legal assistance groups have instructed their attorneys to stop sending mail to their clients immediately.

“This new policy is already having a chilling effect on how lawyers are communicating with their clients. Because legal mail is being opened and copied, attorney-client privilege is basically being ignored,” Grote said. “This jeopardizes the ability to zealously advocate for clients because there is a possibility that any strategy and evidence communicated in legal mail is compromised.”

The Abolitionist Law Center, the ACLU of Pennsylvania, and the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project wrote a letter to the Department of Corrections last week that stated: “Experts in professional ethics have advised us that the DOC’s new process for handling legal mail raises sufficient confidentiality concerns that we should not continue to communicate privileged information with clients incarcerated in state prisons via mail.”

Worden argued that the new policy is more secure than how they previously treated legal mail.

“The procedure for processing privileged mail is more confidential than the prior policy,” Worden said. “Staff no longer are required to inspect each page for the presence of contraband, significantly reducing the time that staff handle or view privileged documents and allowing the inmate to receive the mail sooner.  Finally, under the revised procedure, the entire transaction is recorded by video.”

An end to book donations

The policy also bans educational programs and books donation programs. Instead, the DOC has said that prisoners will have access to free books at the library and e-books (which cost $3 to $25) on $147 tablets. The DOC has also announced that prisoners can request a book through the department and pay for it via a cash slip. If it approves the request, the DOC will then order the book and have it shipped to the prisoner.

Books Through Bars, a donation service that has operated in Pennsylvania for over 30 years, is protesting this change as censorship. Through the program, prisoners can request two or three free books every three months.

“Its direct effect is going to be cruelty. It surveils and censors and monitors people’s reading choices.” Keir Neuringer, a longtime volunteer with Books Through Bars, said. “We believe books are not contraband. Knowledge is not contraband. And that policy makers who align themselves with the action of taking books out of people’s hands are putting themselves in historical precedent that is very frightening.”

Many organizers agree that the book donation ban is an increase in prison censorship as well as surveillance. A “million books are published a year. The DOC is saying they’ll offer [about] 8,000 titles on e-readers,” Neuringer said. “When you consider that those of us on the outside have access to millions and millions of titles. This policy cuts you out of such an enormous access to books.” Neuringer also stated that e-book tablets make it possible for the DOC to start monitoring what people were reading.

Robert “Saleem” Holbrook, who was incarcerated in the Pennsylvania prison system for 27 years, said most prisoners have access to the library, at least once a week. But the library does not have a large variety of books. “Prisoners who want a broader read or greater depth of reading unfortunately are left out of books at library.” Holbrook, an organizer with the Abolitionist Center, said. “They’re mostly oriented towards fiction, not nonfiction.”

“We are effectively being prevented from learning, making connections to and communicating with the outside world,” Mark said.

Inside NY Courts Where Sex Workers are ‘Painted as Victims and Treated as Criminals’

Two new reports challenge the efficacy and ethics of prostitution diversion programs in New York City and nationwide.

Sex worker rights activists protesting Human Trafficking Intervention Courts at New York City Hall in 2015.
Melissa Gira Grant

Inside NY Courts Where Sex Workers are ‘Painted as Victims and Treated as Criminals’

Two new reports challenge the efficacy and ethics of prostitution diversion programs in New York City and nationwide.


So-called prostitution diversion programs fail to break the cycle of criminalization they say they are meant to end, two new reports from the Yale Global Health Justice Partnership (GHJP) find.

Released this week, one report addresses the programs that have proliferated nationwide and the other focuses specifically on New York City’s Human Trafficking Intervention Courts (HTICs). The New York City research draws on interviews with court participants and direct court observations, and was conducted by the GHJP and the Sex Workers Project, a New York City-based organization providing legal services and other support for sex workers and people who have been trafficked.

Announcing the rollout of HTICs in New York State in 2013, then-Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman said the courts’ goal was “to intervene in the lives of trafficked human beings and to help them break the cycle of exploitation and arrest,” adding that the courts would treat them as “victims, not criminals.”

But the report found that often isn’t the case, and is virtually impossible given the courts’ design. “As long as over-policing of the poor along lines of race and gender, coupled with criminalization of buying and selling sex, are the context in which these courts operate,” researchers conclude, “they cannot stop the revolving door of criminalization.”

Eleven counties statewide now have HTICs, but the researchers focused on those in New York City, based in Manhattan, Queens, Brooklyn, and the Bronx, which serve people arrested for misdemeanor prostitution-related offenses. These include “loitering for the purposes of prostitution,” a charge brought overwhelmingly against Black and Latinx women; and unlicensed massage, a charge used in massage parlor raids, often targeting Asian women. The courts presume people charged with these offenses are potential trafficking victims. Yet, the study’s researchers found the HTICs don’t do any systematic screening to determine whether defendants are trafficked. Nor do they release data on how many HTIC defendants are re-arrested.

“Nobody can actually account for what they are doing, and yet they claim these are evidence-based interventions,” Alice Miller, co-director of the GHJP and lead contributor to both reports, told The Appeal. “They don’t actually know enough about what they are doing to say if they are succeeding or failing.”

Another fundamental problem, the report explains, is that HTICs do not incorporate the goals of defendants—whom they regard as “victims” but in many ways continue to treat as “criminals.” Public defenders and defendants told researchers that given the nature of the charges, judges often make assumptions about the defendants’ gender, sexuality, and past behavior. A corrections officer working at the HTIC, researchers said, told them that “other court officers would habitually mock individual defendants and would refer to HTIC court dates as ‘hoe day.’”

Jessica Peñaranda, director of movement building at the Sex Workers Project and a lead contributor to the GHJP research on the courts, questioned their approach in an interview with The Appeal. She said the HTICs she studied had “a sort of rescue mentality” that “anyone engaging in any kind of sex work had to be trafficked.”

A spokesperson for the New York State Court System, which supervises the HTICs, said he needed more time to respond to the report. The Center for Court Innovation, which collaborated in their formation, did not respond to a call for comment by press time.

The report’s researchers drew on earlier work conducted by the Red Umbrella Project, a Brooklyn-based group led by people in the sex trades, which observed the HTICs and published a report in 2014, revealing the disproportionate number of Black women in Brooklyn and Asian women in Queens appearing as defendants in the court.  

Some sex workers object to the mandatory services required by HTICs. “I didn’t need to be treated for sex work,” Red Umbrella Project community organizer Jenna Torres said during a City Council hearing on HTICs in 2015. “That isn’t an illness.” She said she had to drop out of school to complete her service mandate, or risk being arrested again.

The arrest process itself can be dehumanizing and violent, the report reveals. “I’ve had a police officer stick his finger in my pussy,” one HTIC defendant told researchers. “I’ve had them lifting up my dress. I’ve had them [say], ‘Oh you’re just a bird bitch, you ain’t nothing.’ ‘You’re the scum of the earth, why would you sell your body?’ Um, they never ask, ‘Hey, are you being trafficked?’ No! They automatically think, ‘Oh, this bitch really wants to sell her ass.’”

Rather than interrupt the cycle of arrests as intended, the report explains, HTICs rely on arrests to function. Judges don’t dismiss HTIC defendants’ prostitution cases; instead, they typically offer adjournments in contemplation of dismissal (ACDs), which keep defendants’ cases open for six months after they complete court-mandated services. “If someone is a trafficking victim,” researchers asked, “why should there be an ACD at all?” Rather than keep defendants involved in the system, they recommend, these cases could be dismissed or sealed immediately.

Still, many defendants said the courts themselves have treated them with “care and attentiveness,” as researchers put it. Some public defenders said that the HTICs sometimes produce better outcomes for their clients than traditional courts, though not always. Service providers also noted the courts lacked consistency. “It matters who is sitting on the bench,” one service provider told researchers. “It matters who is there from the DA’s office. It matters what kind of defenses they get from the defense attorney. Things are not completely equal across the board. What happens in court is based on people’s personal philosophies.”

So do the courts work? It depends how you measure that, and often, the report argues, what defendants need isn’t what’s measured. Defendants interviewed by researchers said the HTICs’ most useful function was helping them avoid jail time, though the mandated services weren’t always what they needed. “Counseling isn’t gonna do shit,” one defendant told them. “Let’s be real. Yeah, it helps with the emotional part, but if you want a prostitute to get off the streets and away from her pimp, you gotta give her money. Or help her financially. Because right now that’s her only financial situation. That’s her only means of survival.”

For the courts to provide meaningful help, said Peñaranda, defendants would need long-term support, divorced from the threat of criminal charges. Instead, some people working in the HTICs are “co-opting the language of harm reduction, especially social service providers,” presenting “diversion as a tool to mitigate criminalization—but it doesn’t. It actually exacerbates it.”

To improve New York City’s HTICs as they stand, researchers recommend, judges should dismiss and seal charges immediately, and stop using the court’s claim of “connecting victims to services” to justify arrests. Instead, the city should create programs to offer pre-arrest and pre-booking services. But even those changes aren’t enough, they conclude. “The gulf between promise and delivery in the HTIC system is irreparable without the decriminalization of sex work,” the report states.

Miller echoed that call. “The way to fix [the courts] isn’t to make the bureaucracy a better social worker,” she told The Appeal. “It’s to get the criminal justice system out of managing people in the sex sector at all.”

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In Washington State, It’s Nearly Impossible To Prosecute Police Killings

This fall, however, an initiative goes to voters that would change the law on deadly force by the police, which has led to no officer there being convicted of wrongfully killing someone in the line of duty in more than 30 years.

Berkeley police officers in riot gear line up in front of protesters during a demonstration in Berkeley, California, in 2014.
Photo illustration by Anagraph. Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

In Washington State, It’s Nearly Impossible To Prosecute Police Killings

This fall, however, an initiative goes to voters that would change the law on deadly force by the police, which has led to no officer there being convicted of wrongfully killing someone in the line of duty in more than 30 years.


On May 23, 2013, Annalesa Thomas warned her son Leonard that she would call the police if he didn’t hand over her 4-year-old grandson Elijah. Hours later, 27 Pierce County police officers, two SWAT trucks and a sniper arrived at their home in Fife, a small town of about 9,000 residents in Washington State near the much larger city of Tacoma. The massive police presence came despite the fact that Leonard was unarmed.

A four-hour standoff ensued: according to the police, Leonard, 30, had snatched the phone from Annalesa when she first tried to call 911 and held Elijah against the child’s will. Annalesa, however, had told the police that she called for help simply because she did not want Elijah be watched by Leonard, who struggled with alcoholism.

Near the end of the standoff, police struck a deal with Leonard in which he would hand over Elijah and the officers would leave. As police raided Leonard’s house, he panicked, grabbing Elijah. Watching the scene unfold, a sniper then fired a .308 caliber round into Leonard’s waist.

Leonard bled out on the floor just inside the home, clinging to Elijah as police pulled his son from his arms. “Don’t hurt my boy,” Leonard told the police. Those were his last words, Annalesa told The Appeal.

“All I expected was police would knock on the door and say, ‘How about you give the little boy to grandma?’” Annalesa said. “I still wonder how? How did we get to that point where Leonard lost his life?”

On July 14, 2017, a jury in federal district court awarded Leonard’s family $15 million in civil damages, one of the largest sums awarded in a civil suit over a police killing in Washington history (after an appeal of the verdict, the Thomas family agreed to settle their wrongful-death and civil-rights lawsuit for $13 million). Elijah Thomas, now 10 years old, told reporters after the verdict that he believed his father was simply “trying to protect me.”

The “Malice” Standard

Despite the verdict and public outrage over Leonard’s death and others wrongfully killed by police, including protests, no officers were criminally charged in the case. But this is not an unusual outcome in Washington, where an officer may not be found criminally liable if he or she acted “without malice” according to state law. The legislation was passed in 1986 by lawmakers who were concerned about insufficient protections for the police after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1985 in Tennessee v. Garner that it was unconstitutional to use deadly force against an unarmed suspect fleeing arrest. But because of the law, no officer in the state has been convicted of wrongfully killing someone in the line of duty in more than 30 years. The sole homicide case against a Washington officer was brought in Snohomish County in 2009 when Everett police Officer Troy Meade shot a suspected drunk driver in the back, killing him. Despite another officer testifying against his colleague’s excessive use of force, a jury acquitted Meade of second-degree murder and first-degree manslaughter.

“It’s difficult to prosecute a police officer, and it should be, but today it’s impossible,” King County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg told The Appeal. “That’s been the result of our legal analysis in every police shooting we’ve ever had.”

Andrè Taylor, whose brother Che was shot and killed by Seattle police in February 2016, agrees.

“The malice standard is de facto immunity that allows them to kill without restraint,” he told The Appeal. Taylor moved to Washington shortly after his brother’s death to begin an advocacy group, Not This Time!, which focuses on reducing killings by police.  

Efforts to change the law previously languished in the state legislature. But the work of a coalition of activists and family members of those killed by police  has led to a statewide ballot initiative to reform the law. Initiative 940—so named simply because of the number assigned to it by the secretary of state’s office—would remove the 1986 law’s so-called malice standard and replace it with a two-part test for when a “reasonable” officer would use force and whether the officer acted in “good faith” to prevent harm to others.

It would also require independent investigations of such incidents rather than the common practice of internal reviews by police departments. And it mandates that all police receive de-escalation and mental health training, and be prepared to give first aid at the scene if necessary.

Another provision is that tribal governments would have to be notified and involved in investigations when a tribal member is injured or killed by police. Eight of the state’s Native tribes have donated to the campaign to pass the initiative, including $400,000 from the Puyallup Tribe of Indians, according to campaign finance records.

Initiative 940 Goes to Voters

With state lawmakers hoping to avoid a divisive policing issue on the November midterm ballot, legislators and some of the state’s largest law enforcement organizations negotiated amendments to the initiative to pass it as law in March. But the state Supreme Court nullified legislators’ actions in late August in a 5-4 ruling, saying the legislature’s method for approving the initiative and its amendments violated state law. Under the state Constitution, lawmakers would have either had to enact the initiative as it was written into law, or put it on the ballot along with a second, amended option for voters to choose from. Neither option had enough support.

Supporters of the compromise included the Washington State Fraternal Order of Police and the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, whose executive director, Steve Strachan, issued a statement after the court’s ruling encouraging a “no” vote on I-940. Strachan did not respond to an interview request, but when the Supreme Court made its ruling he said, “I encourage us to focus on our agreements and good policy, and bringing the community together for increased trust.”

Two of the state’s major law enforcement unions, the Washington State Patrol Troopers Association and the Council of Metropolitan Police and Sheriffs, remain opposed to both I-940 and the now-defunct compromise. Neither organization responded to requests for interviews.

The outcome in November could influence other states’ efforts to increase accountability for officers who wrongly use deadly force. Efforts in California to put more restrictions on police to prevent the use of deadly force were suspended in late August, after legislators said they could not muster enough lawmakers to support the bill.

The bill was introduced in March 2017 and passed the state assembly two months later. However, it lay dormant in the state senate until April 2018, following weeks of protests in Sacramento over the police killing of Stephon Clark, an unarmed 22-year-old Black man, while officers were looking for a car vandal.

De-Escalate Washington, a group co-led by Andrè Taylor that is spearheading the campaign to enact I-940, says polling demonstrates that about two-thirds of state voters support its proposal. The organization also obtained 360,000 signatures for I-940 to be certified for the ballot—100,000 more than the minimum required by the state. They have raised more than $1.8 million for the effort, according to state campaign-finance records.

“The coalition of groups in Washington State are stepping up and doing more than we’ve seen in any other state,”  Zeke Johnson, Amnesty International USA’s senior director of programs, told The Appeal. “I think Washington State has an opportunity to be a real leader in reform.”

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