People hate us. It sounds melodramatic, but it is true nonetheless. We’re hated by each other, by people on the outside, and by people working on the inside. By ‘us,’ I mean incarcerated persons. Offenders, inmates, convicts, prisoners. And there are people who make it their mission in life to let us know that hatred is all we deserve.
An inmate can be persuaded otherwise through cards and letters. Phone and visitation are also effective ways to do this, but it all starts with mail. You can’t visit me or receive a phone call until one or two letters pass between us. Therefore, those who staff prison and jailhouse mailrooms have the power to wreak havoc on an inmate’s psyche. The mailroom is the hub of most love entering or leaving prison. Limit mail? Limit hope.
This isn’t lost on people working in mailrooms nor those who make rules and regulations governing mail delivery. Some examples:
Stickers – Many prison mailroom employees around the country believe stickers are abhorrent. It is unclear why adhesive is so detested. Prison mailrooms consider it so dangerous, mail will be returned to sender if any adhesive-backed material is attached anywhere on a piece of mail – including an address label. It is a wonder why stamps exempted from the no-sticker rule.
Pictures – There is a major industry which supplies provocative photos to prison inmates. Inmates pick from proof sheets supplied by various companies and take their choices to the mailroom when they are ready to order. Personnel review photos after they arrive to ensure they aren’t too revealing. They will also carefully scan any photo sent by family members. An inmate I know was told that a picture of his four-year-old daughter had been rejected because she was flashing a gang sign. He later found out she was holding up a peace sign.
Address rules – Letters from prison require complete return addresses in case they contain threats or illegal instructions. The USPS doesn’t care as long as the ‘To’ address is deliverable. I once absent-mindedly omitted the city and zip code of the return address on a letter. Rather than add this to the envelope, a ten-second operation, the mailroom employee grabbed a carbon-copy form, filled out the violation details, stapled it to the envelope, and sent it back for correction. After I completed the missing information and dropped the letter back into the mailbox, it was rejected once more (in triplicate) because I had used an abbreviated first name (Rick, instead of Richard).
Handmade items – Some mailrooms will reject homemade cards – something children love to make for loved ones in prison. An inmate on my wing needed to mail a large drawing but couldn’t afford the 8″ x 15″ envelope from commissary. He made his own envelope. The mailroom rejected it, claiming that the envelope “couldn’t be properly inspected.” Someone donated an official envelope and helped transfer the stamps from the rejected envelope. Technically this was also a rule violation. Inmates aren’t allowed to give commissary items to one another. Its considered extortion. Don’t give a friend a stamp or an envelope — it leads to rape. Or so one would think.
Stationary – Families in Texas were once able to send their incarcerated loved ones writing pads, pens, pencils, and even stamps. No longer. Other states have followed suit and force inmates to purchase stationary at inflated prices.
Postage – Commissary sells various stamp denominations but nothing else that might be useful. For instance, USPS offers a flat rate box which is economical — compared to stamps — if one needs to send home books. Because mailrooms are notorious for banning books, inmates often have to pay return postage for a rejected book. Not only will the mailroom refuse to sell you a flat rate box but they will also inflate the number of stamps required to send bulky items. Because they can, prison scum.
Eff Ewe – Maine recently tried to ban all non-legal mail to any of its prison inmates. Only judicial notices and legal correspondence would have been allowed. If the people of Maine hadn’t stopped the proposal, I have no doubt that many other states would have done the same. They may even yet try.
There are some reasonable rules regarding mail delivery which aim to ensure prison security, say, don’t send explosives or metal files through the mail. Yet, when you look at many rules and more importantly, the way they are enforced, it’s obvious that safety is merely a lame excuse offered for efforts to drain hope from the incarcerated. On its face this seems odd, doesn’t it? Why would prison officials want to squash an inmate’s hope? Because they don’t know who they’re supposed to serve. If they were intent on serving society, they would turn out hopeful, educated individuals who are ready to lead positive, productive lives. Instead, they make decisions which tend to embitter and degrade their charges— the very thing which leads to recidivism— costing society dearly.
Of course, not everyone can be educated. Not everyone can be turned from their anti-social behavior. Certainly though, belligerence and hatred greatly lowers the odds that one will leave prison better than when they entered.
The prison mailroom should be a conduit for love and hope and it is in many cases. It could be more, and you can be a part of that more if you’re on the outside reading this.
You could adopt a inmate, for instance. If you’re so inclined, you could also help by raising awareness about spiteful prison mail policies. Share this. End hateful prison mailroom practices.
Rick Fisk, Dalhart Unit, TDCJ