NEW YORK—The Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University filed a lawsuit today seeking the immediate release of records from the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) concerning the digitization, retention, and surveillance of mail sent to people incarcerated in federal jails and prisons. In June, the Institute filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request seeking these same records; the BOP has not responded to that request.

“Mail digitization programs impose a heartbreaking burden on incarcerated people and their loved ones,” said Stephanie Krent, a staff attorney with the Knight First Amendment Institute. “While correctional facilities have an obligation to make prisons safe, those concerns should not be used as an excuse to subject these communities to ever-more invasive surveillance.”

In March of 2020, the BOP launched a pilot program that digitizes incoming mail. Under that program, a private telecommunications contractor, Smart Communications, opens and scans all non-legal mail sent to at least two federal correctional facilities. The company destroys all the original letters, pictures, and photos that are sent, but retains electronic copies, along with additional information about the senders, in a searchable database. The pilot program was supposed to last a year, but the agency has not publicly disclosed the current status of the program. It also has not explained whether it has policies in place to protect the data collected from misuse or to ensure the data is not retained in Smart Communications’ database indefinitely.

The lawsuit notes that while Smart Communications markets its service as a method of improving safety and security in correctional facilities by preventing contraband from entering a jail or prison, data collected after the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections adopted the Smart Communications system showed a slight increase in drug-test positivity rates, indicating that the mail was not the only or even main source of drugs entering the facility.  

“The Bureau of Prisons must provide a full accounting of this new form of surveillance,” said Xiangnong Wang, a legal fellow with the Knight First Amendment Institute. “The public has a right to know the policies governing the bureau’s review, retention, and dissemination of such deeply personal information, and it has a right to know whether the program has actually succeeded in any of its goals.”

The lawsuit asks the court to require the BOP to provide information about when it began this program, whether it plans to extend it, and what it is doing with the data it collects.

Read today’s complaint here.

Lawyers on the case include, in addition to Krent and Wang, Alex Abdo of the Knight First Amendment Institute.

For more information, contact: Lorraine Kenny, communications director, [email protected]