Texas prisons switched to electronic mail last year to curb contraband. How is that going?

Advocates are still pushing for facilities to switch back to physical mail.

By Sarah AschApril 30, 2024 10:26 am,

Texas prisons switched to a digital mail platform last summer, which officials said was going to reduce the contraband coming into prisons. 

However, advocates for incarcerated people were against the change, warning it cut prisoners off from meaningful contact with the outside world. 

How has this change actually been going? 

April Towery, a journalist based in Dallas and a volunteer at the Lioness Justice Impacted Women’s Alliance, spoke at a Texas Board of Criminal Justice meeting last week about the new program. She said that while she doesn’t have exact numbers, most arrests related to prison contraband don’t have anything to do with the mail.

“I have been following the arrests that are made based on contraband coming into the facilities,” she said. “And what it appears to be is officers bringing in drugs, which has always been the case. And also people bringing in drugs through visitation. So I don’t know that there have been any notable reductions (because of the digital mail).”

Towery was incarcerated in Texas from 2020 until 2022 and she said physical mail is an important way for people to build community in prisons.

“We would sit around in the dayroom eating dinner on Friday nights and say, ‘show me your pictures.’ And we would pass around pictures of our families and we got to know each other that way,” she said.

“It was an opportunity for mothers to see handwritten drawings from their children, to get a Mother’s Day card on Mother’s Day with their child’s handwriting. And that represents hope. And that gives us something to look forward to when we get home.”

Now, mail is distributed electronically on tablets, which Towery said presents its own challenges.

“It’s faster. But not everyone can operate the system. It’s done through Securus, which we believe to be not only financially bankrupt, but morally,” she said.

“The prices are outrageous, and senior citizens and people who are not familiar with technology have difficulty setting up accounts. They’re spending a ton of money to do this. And so they’re forgoing correspondence altogether because they don’t want to mess with Securus.”

Towery said she would like to see Texas prisons revert back to physical mail.

“What I told them at the board meeting is this is a quick fix,” she said. “You’re hearing from a lot of people about, you know, these demands to install air conditioning in every single prison in Texas. And that’s a big, expensive problem.

Just reverting back to allowing people to use paper mail is a pretty quick fix. It’s just acknowledging that you tried something and it didn’t address the problem fully, and I don’t see why that wouldn’t be something they could do.”

Towery said she hopes leaders at TDCJ are willing to listen to those who have been incarcerated.

“I hope that they are interested in hearing from people who have lived experience of having been inside TDCJ units,” she said. “We can offer a personal experience and give feedback that they can’t get from a spreadsheet or database.”

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