This week, the North Carolina Department of Public Safety banned original mail, including cards, drawings, and photographs, from its prisons. Instead, letter writers must draft letters or create digital cards and drawings using an app from the contractor TextBehind, and they will have to pay to send something to their loved ones; prices begin at $0.49 for a one-and-a-half page letter and increase with every photograph or drawing added. Alternatively, they can mail a letter to Maryland, where TextBehind will scan it, deliver a digital copy to the recipient, and shred the original unless the letter writer pays an additional $2.50 to have it sent back to them.
In at least one TextBehind contract, the company pledged that it would retain scanned copies of all mail for at least seven years, including both incoming and certain outgoing mail, and even after the letter’s recipient has been released.
This type of prison mail surveillance is growing quickly across the United States. I’ve written before about the significant First Amendment concerns these programs raise, including the chilling effects of pervasive surveillance, the burden on expression behind bars when mail is scanned incorrectly, delayed, or lost, and the irreplaceable nature of physical mail for those who have limited connections to the outside world. You can read that analysis here.
Stephanie Krent is a staff attorney at the Knight Institute.