Elijah Patterson flashes an activist icon on screen share during testimony at Friday’s DOC hearing while DOC attorney Heidi D. Handler looks on | Photo courtesy of Jean Trounstine
Department in denial that officers smuggle in drugs. Prisoner advocates cry foul.
More than 100 people would have attended the three-and-a-half hour virtual hearing on proposed new mail rules last Friday if they’d been allowed in the Zoom room.
But because the Massachusetts Department of Correction did not purchase a Zoom webinar license to enable enough space for a public hearing of that size, dozens of people were turned away.
That was only one of the communication problems in play during a truly disastrous streaming experience, which also featured DOC officials failing to effectively monitor the chat function, allowing Zoom bombers showing pornography on TikTok videos to interrupt, and cutting the meeting off at various times due to the interference of disruptive music.
Virtual theatrics aside, prison reform advocates came to oppose new policies. But because of the technical glitches, only 30 people were able to testify for five minutes each. Oral testimony came from people who are incarcerated, read aloud by friends or family members, and from formerly-incarcerated people, as well as attorneys and activists.
According to the DOC, new additions to their regulations, or “Standard Operating Procedure” (SOP), are being proposed to prevent drugs from entering the state prison system through legal and nonlegal mail. Officials say some drugs can be dissolved and smuggled into prison through the postal service.
Research, however, has shown that mail is a small source of the drug problem in prisons. A 2018 survey from the nonprofit Prison Policy Initiative showed that staff brings in most drugs, while an article by the nonprofit Marshall Project also emphasized that corrections officers are the main source of contraband.
In its attempt to purge prisons of drugs, the DOC has revised the regulation governing nonlegal and legal mail. Administrators now plan to photocopy all incoming legal mail, giving copies to those incarcerated, and either shredding the originals or charging prisoners to send documents back to lawyers. Also, the DOC: has plans to have a third party service photocopy nonlegal mail and deliver the copies to prisoners; wants prisoners to read digitized mail, magazines, and newspapers on tablets that those behind bars or their families must pay for; plans to eliminate time limits on mail processing, making it so that receiving or sending out mail will take much longer; moved to scratch the requirement that incarcerated persons who receive suspicious mail receive a copy of it before the department accuses them of being sent contraband.
DOC spokesperson Jason Dobson did not respond to a request to comment on the new SOP or clarify if the department conducts searches of incoming corrections officers for drugs. Because of all the disruptions in last Friday’s meeting, DOC gave the public until Feb 5 to submit written testimony.
The new policy might not have come to light if the Suffolk Superior Court had not ordered the department to conduct a public hearing. In September 2020, the DOC was sued by Edward G. Wright, a prisoner at Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center. By that time, DOC had already implemented its new mail policies at MCI-Cedar Junction, MCI-Concord, MCI-Norfolk, MCI Shirley, North Central Correctional Institute (Gardner), Old Colony Correctional Center, and Souza, all facilities where the DOC deemed drugs were brought in through legal or nonlegal mail. The court agreed these policies were in violation of the Massachusetts Administrative Procedures Act, which requires a public hearing before changing such regulations.
Randy Gioia, deputy chief counsel of the Committee for Public Counsel (CPCS), said in an interview, “A lawyer has an obligation to make sure all communications are completely confidential.” He testified at the hearing that “photocopying legal mail infringes on the constitutional rights of our clients.” It breaches lawyer-client privilege because a photocopier takes a photo and retains a copy in digitized form. Someone else other than the prisoner then reads it, he explained.
“Fake” legal mail may have been sent inside containing contraband, but “no bonafide legal mail” has come into DOC prisons with drugs, said Gioia and his colleague, Joshua Dohan, director of the youth advocacy division of CPCS. Testing legal mail for drugs “violates constitutional rights,” Dohan argued, since such field testing requires a third party.
Dohan also pointed out how Pennsylvania had solved this problem by providing attorneys with stickers that changed weekly to identify attorneys for confidential mail sent into prisons.
According to most people who testified at the hearing, fear of improper surveillance by the DOC is for good reason. Tony Gaskins, who is serving life without parole at Souza-Baranowski and is a member of the board of directors at Prisoners’ Legal Services, spelled out prisoners’ concerns in his testimony read by friend Daniel DeAngelis: “Our phone calls are limited to 10 [people] and can only be changed every three months; our visits are restricted to only five to eight persons…and now their focus is on limiting the mail arbitrarily. This is the trifecta. With this enactment, our prisoners will be silent and at the complete mercy of our jailers.”
Grassroots organizations such as Black and Pink Massachusetts, Deeper than Water, Boston Area Rape Crisis Center, Massachusetts Incarcerated Individual Advocacy, Prisoner Book Program, Decarcerate Western Mass, Building up People Not Prisons, and Families for Justice as Healing (FJAH) created a shared logo for the hearing. They also developed a one-page document to educate community members as to ways the new policy would affect prisoners and their families.
Jurrell Laronal, the transform harm organizer at FJAH, was one of the organizers who helped gather testimony from community members. Formerly incarcerated himself, Laronal told me the “DOC is creating a false narrative to make it seem that the system is flooded with drugs. … They take people’s legal mail, throw it all over the cell. Take cellie’s legal mail and throw it all over the cell. Imagine the time that it takes for someone to get mail sorted.” In his testimony, he added, “DOC has established a pattern of violating the civil and human rights of all incarcerated loved ones as they see fit, under the disguise of security.”
Others who testified noted the inhumanity of the non-privileged mail policies. Lois Ahrens, the founding director of the Real Cost of Prisons Project, said “One has to wonder why the DOC is proposing these rule changes now. Does the DOC suspect or fear that incarcerated people are communicating more with their families and advocates about the conditions in prisons? … Is the DOC working to ensure that incarcerated people use costly tablets rather than continuing to use letters?”
Cassandrah Bensahih of Mass Action, who coordinates the Massachusetts Against Solitary Confinement Coalition, testified about her experience receiving mail at MCI-Framingham.
“Mail makes us feel more normal and like we are a part of the world,” she said. “There is nothing like being able to touch a letter, re-read it, go back over it. I still have a Christmas card from my daughter and I was incarcerated in 2007. … I cherish that card.”
Diah Utami, who called in from Indonesia, showed drawings meant for her incarcerated boyfriend created by her children. With the new policy, none of these would reach him, only photocopies. She mentioned how much it cost to send this art, $50 or $60. She also said she wrote him long letters because “the only thing he says that makes him happy is the relationship with his family, including me.”
To the chagrin of Elijah Patterson, communications and outreach coordinator of Black and Pink Massachusetts, the hearing was not recorded. However, Brianna Donahue Martin, a paralegal specialist, took notes. In an interview, Patterson said, Commissioner Mici, who did not attend, “cannot hear the testimony.” As a result, he questioned whether it was actually an “open hearing,” as is required by law.
In written testimony, Patterson added, “The failures of technology we have seen today make me question how [DOC] can possibly manage scanning all of the mail entering all prisons and keep accurate electronic surveillance logs when they cannot run a Zoom room.”
This article was produced in collaboration with the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism.
Jean Trounstine is a writer, activist, and professor whose latest book is Boy With a Knife: A Story of Murder, Remorse, and a Prisoner’s Fight for Justice. She is on the steering committee of the Coalition for Effective Public Safety.