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 LIFELINES

The significance of physical mail for incarcerated people and their loved ones

and the effects of digitization

Images, video and text by Malak AlSayyad

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Physical mail is the most common, accessible and affordable way for people in prison and their families to communicate with each other. Since 2018, states across the country, including New York state, have started banning physical mail to incarcerated people, replacing hand-written mail with digital scans on tablets or printed photocopies and personal packages with pre-approved vendor items only. This change comes in light of Department of Corrections’ concerns about contraband smuggling through the mail. With the exception of legal and medical mail, people incarcerated in NY state and federal prisons cannot receive any original hand-written or crafted letters or cards. Prison advocates, formerly incarcerated people and their loved ones have spoken up against these policies.

"The letters are a reminder that you have someone out there waiting for you."

Marco Barrios

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For Marco Barrios, who spent 24 years and six months in NY state prison, letters and cards were, at times, the only way for him to stay in touch with his mother Dora and especially with his daughter, Naomi, who was born while her father was incarcerated. Dora and Naomi would visit Marco upstate whenever possible, but his separation from Naomi’s mother and the long distances the family had to travel made visitation complicated or at times impossible. However, their communication through cards and letters continued throughout Marco’s time at different facilities in upstate New York. 

For Marco, letters from different members were distinguishable by their smell. His Mother Dora used to sometimes spray her perfume on cards before sending them. 

"Thank god that this nightmare is over" 

Dora Barrios

Dora Barrios, who is now 85, worried that she would die before seeing her son released and Marco shared that fear. The first few months after his release in 2017, she would call him alot and was extremely worried about his adjustment back to life outside of prison. 

 

Marco now works at the Urban Justice Center coordinating reentry assistance on Riker's Island. 

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"I was raised by my mom alone. So I knew if I have a child, I'm gonna be there, no matter where I'm at. I tried to be strong for her" Marco Barrios

Naomi Barrios

On March 14th, 2023, Marco spoke at the Board of Corrections meeting in Manhattan about the significance that mail has had for him and his family. At this meeting NYC Department of Corrections (DOC) was requesting a move to digitized mail in NYC jails that follows the same model implemented on the state level with the aim of curbing contraband smuggling through the mail.

“Mail banning is not going to stop drugs from coming in. It is definitely not. And the amount of drugs that go into there is very little compared to what we need to do in terms of a rehabilitation model.

Marco Barrios
“I know that some of you believe that it is important that incarcerated individuals should receive original mail and packages from anyone sending them.
But it is more important that we keep individuals alive.”

NYC Dept. of Corrections Commissioner Luis Molina
Thus far, the Department of Corrections has really only offered anecdotal evidence to show that drugs are sometimes smuggled through the mail. But they haven't shown any evidence that mail is a significant factor of drugs that are getting into the facility.”

Stephanie Krent, Attorney at Knight First Amendment Institute

The commissioner presented contraband records of Fentanyl-laced paper found in NYC jails, though not specifically connected to the mail, and reported 133 incidences of mail contraband interjections. It was not specified in what time frame these incidences occured. Several speakers, including Marco, expressed their concerns that letter banning does not address the root of the problem which is substance abuse issues and the need to address other avenues of drug smuggling, including through Corrections Staff.

 

The request for digitization was not moved to a vote and therefore did not pass in NYC. 

"Writing is a lifeline for somebody that is locked up. Once the COs would come around, we'd be waiting all this time, from the morning till the afternoon to hear our name called for mail."

Rashaan Brown

Rashaan Brown’s aunt, Adrian, who raised him and his sister after his mother’s passing had vowed not to visit him if he were ever to go to jail because it would hurt her to see him like that. But when Rashaan did end up incarcerated in state prison, she came to see him and would regularly send him cards, letters and money to spend on the inside. 

Rashaan would write to his aunt, his father, his cousins and sisters, friends and girlfriends. He has kept piles of the letters and pictures he exchanged during his 17 years of incarceration, marking birthdays, holidays, important and tragic life events. While phones were available, the collect calls were at times prohibitively expensive for families on the outside. 

Rashaan kept his letters and pictures along with magazine snippets of recipes he liked which he kept in order to cook when he is released. 

Apart from his friends and family, Rashaan would write to women who would sign up for prison for Prison Pen Pal websites, in the hopes that they can create connections and eventually meet them in person during visits. At times he and his friends would write letters to random addresses from the newspapers and sometimes, people would write back. One day he received a letter from a woman he had dated briefly before going away and the pair got back together and stayed together for several years, where she would come to visit him.  “When you’re with someone while you’re in prison, you’re giving them 110% of your attention.” Throughout this time they wrote letters and cards to each other constantly. 

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The first letter Rashaan received from L, who would go on to become his girlfriend for 3 years. 

“She brought a lot of hope back in my life, but she disappeared at different times.

And d
isappearing acts in prison... means I am moving on"

A card from L, three years after her and Rashaan started dating.

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