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The Wisconsin Department of Corrections started to roll out a new mail policy which  contracts with TextBehind, a third-party mail processing service that photocopies mail sent to those who are incarcerated. 

According to the new policy, mail must be sent to a Maryland postal box where TextBehind opens the mail, photocopies the envelope and contents and sends the copies to institutions for delivery. 

TextBehind said photos, drawings and birthday cards would be copied in color, but prisoners and their loved ones say photocopies of a child’s drawing lack the value of the original, both to the child artist as well as the parent or family member recipient. 

TextBehind also shreds the mail 30 days after scanning it, which those who are incarcerated say it steals something from the family and hinders rehabilitation because they aren’t afforded an opportunity to regularly write to their friends and family. Studies show that outside support can make a difference in the success of re-entries to society. 

Department officials first tested the new mail policy in its Fox Lake Correctional Facility last April, but announced that the program would expand to all of the state’s correctional institutions by December of last year. Officials for the department said that the program is meant to reduce the influx of psychoactive substances — such as synthetic marijuana — that have been sent through the mail. 

In September last year, the Wisconsin State Journal reported that overdoses inside the prison were down — crediting the department’s new mail policy — but added that there were issues with how the program was executed. 

The corrections agency is the latest in a long line of other state departments that have enacted tougher mail regulations in an effort to combat drugs inside prisons. In addition to Wisconsin, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and North Dakota also rely on third-party services. Texas tightened its restrictions in 2020, prohibiting colored paper, cards and artwork using paint, glitter and stickers. 

Legal mail is exempt from Wisconsin’s policy, but many prisoners say the new policy still violates their civil rights. 

In 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled that prisons could restrict mail, but only in a narrow set of circumstances. 

Inside some facilities, prisoners said that they are worried about money that is often sent through the mail. The new policy does not address how TextBehind will handle letters that also include a check. The department’s website still guides family members to send money online or through the mail. 

The new mail policy was enacted even though there is little to no evidence of how often drugs are smuggled in through the mail. The department said in a statement in 2020 that they found a total of almost 200 incidents involving drugs in the mail — a small fraction of the thousands of pieces of mail the department manages every day — but didn’t explain if the incidents were all actual discoveries of paraphernalia or if they had just drug tested the mail.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Sean J. White is a writer whose work has been published in Michigan Quarterly Review, The Evening Street Review and Aji Magazine. He is the recipient of numerous PEN America’s Prison Writing Awards. White is incarcerated in Wisconsin.