If you were to tell me there would be a day when the Missouri Department of Corrections would no longer forward personal mail, I would have said that you were crazy. But on July 1, 2022, that is what happened. I blame the change on the department’s increasing reliance on computers. People like me counted on the mail — actual paper mail — to bring a little joy and happiness.
Staying in touch with friends and family is especially important for the incarcerated. For decades, people behind walls in Missouri were able to receive cards, letters, photos of friends and family, and even pictures drawn by their kids or other relatives in the mail. Calendars, newsletters and various helpful catalogs also made their way to us. We all looked forward to getting mail from home.
But now, all our mail is going to a facility in Florida that scans the items and sends them as emails to electronic tablets.
In 2018, each incarcerated person in the Missouri Department of Corrections was issued a 7-inch computer tablet. These tablets have features such as email, radio, games, music purchasing and downloading, movie rentals, podcasts, pictures, e-books and a phone application. But if tablet users don’t have online accounts, they can’t send emails.
Instead they have to use the postal service.
Getting mail from home is special. For me, an envelope from home meant my family had gone to a store, hand-picked a card just for me, addressed the envelope and mailed it. I could feel the love bursting through the envelope and card.
When the guard came around and delivered the card I felt special, whether it was for a special occasion or just because they were thinking of me. Often when I opened a card, I could smell my grandmother’s perfume, which would be a much-needed reminder of home.
My father would send me cards that would always make me laugh and lift my spirits no matter what was going on at the time. I loved to display the cards on the desk in my cell.
Some of my favorite cards were holiday-themed pop-ups. Having these cards allowed me to bring holiday spirit into my cell.
For those who have kids, being able to open their letters or cards and see their kids’ drawings provided a feeling of joy and love that opening an email on a tablet can’t match. You cannot hang a tablet on the wall like you can a picture that was made for you.
Now on Father’s Day or Mother’s Day, kids have to choose from the e-cards provided by Securus, the communications provider that the corrections department contracts with.
Before the shift to tablets, the incarcerated could put photos in albums or display them in their cells. Being able to display photos brought a lot of folks joy. When prisoners left, they could take the photos home with them. If photos exist only on a tablet, they may not be available when the incarcerated leave prison.
Aside from cards and photos, prisoners also could get calendars sent from vendors such as Amazon. This was something that I looked forward to every year.
Around November or December my father would ask me what type of calendar I wanted for the next year. My last calendar had pictures of different flowers for each month. Hanging the calendar on the cell wall brought color to the standard gray cell.
We can now only get calendars from the commissary, but it doesn’t sell color calendars.
Additionally, not everyone has access to a tablet at all times. In maximum security prisons, prisoners aren’t allowed to have their tablets while they are in the hole like in medium and minimum security prisons.
Not having a tablet means not getting mail at all. Prior to digitizing our mail, prisoners who were in the hole were able to receive snail mail, no matter the security level. The hole is hard enough mentally, let alone without hearing from friends and family.
The prison’s administrators may not have thought of this when they enacted this new policy. To give them the benefit of the doubt, the change may be due to staff shortages, rather than a conscious change in policy. But I would’ve hoped that staff would have some compassion and would put more thought into policies such as this one.
With the new policy, I feel disconnected from my friends and family. My birthday and holidays no longer feel as special because I no longer get a card to celebrate them.
To make matters worse, some of my family don’t want to deal with the hassle of sending mail to an address in Florida, which is where the mail processing facility is located, or having it scanned and sent to my tablet. I have completely lost touch with those people. A lot of folks who have kids tell me they feel sad not being able to get pictures from their youngsters any longer. Taking away something as important as personal mail from our loved ones is the opposite of progress.
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.