Some Posts Blocked by New Prison Mail Policy
Censorship of communication between incarcerated people and the outside world is nothing new, but something about that power dynamic has changed in 2020, said Courtney Montoya, organizer of the New Mexico Chapter of the Organizing Committee of Imprisoned Workers.
Conditions are controlled by prison officials, she said, and with so many people crammed inside, people have few ways to protect themselves from COVID infection.
A series of riots and hunger strikes in prisons and jails across the United States has sought to improve the treatment of incarcerated people, particularly medical treatment and protection from infection, she said.
The Prisoner Workers Organizing Committee is the prisoner-run branch of the Industrial Workers of the World union. Incarcerated IWOC members organize for release, basic human rights and basic daily necessities. Formerly incarcerated persons and relatives of those incarcerated outside work as liaison officers carrying out administrative tasks that cannot be carried out behind prison walls.
Since late 2019, the IWOC New Mexico letter-writing program has been connecting people inside and outside the walls throughout the Southwest, including Arizona, New Mexico and Texas, Montoya said. As part of the program, he produced a newsletter that went into nearly every prison in New Mexico, she said.
The volunteers were writing about the news, writing poetry, producing artwork – and relaying information about how people incarcerated can protect themselves from COVID infection.
Many New Mexico prisons limit postings to four physical pages or less, Montoya said. So they printed each bulletin on four front and back pages, for a total of eight pages. They began to include a disclaimer on every copy warning anyone who handles it that it is illegal to tamper with the mail.
Either way, the newsletter was hampered by New Mexico’s new prison mail policy, she said.
Since February 1, personal mail to any prison in New Mexico to have to be sent to Securus in Florida. The company copies the mail and then sends the copies. NM Corrections Department officials said the policy was intended to curb the flow of drugs into prisons, but legislative analysts showed that has yet to happen despite state spending.
Any mail sent directly to a prison is returned to sender unopened. Medical, legal and other confidential mail is still routed directly to incarcerated persons.
After the new procedure took effect, IWOC members began to see more mail sent to prisons being returned with rejection letters saying “newsletters are not allowed,” Montoya said. .
Policy restricts incarcerated people’s access to all sorts of publications, recent lawsuit claims ask a judge to force the state’s correctional department to turn over documents on how the policy was developed.
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According to the complaint, the policy prohibits inmates from receiving “magazines or similar publications in the mail; including publications which may deal with prisoners’ civil rights or legal matters”.
The civil rights attorney who filed the case, State Sen. Jacob Candelaria (DTS-Albuquerque), said in an interview Thursday that he has several incarcerated clients who have lost access to publications due to politics.
Corrections Department spokeswoman Carmelina Hart said Thursday that magazines cannot be scanned by the new Securus equipment because the pages are bound together.
“So a magazine in its bound form cannot be accepted,” Hart said. “If someone sends an unbound article or clipping, in a form that can be scanned, that might be accepted.”
Some publications, however, remain behind the walls. Mara Taub, longtime editor of the Bulletin of the Prisoners’ Rights Coalitionsaid in an email that his was still getting inside on Thursday.
Potential First Amendment lawsuit
When the state tries to limit incarcerated people’s mail and communication with the outside world, courts have raised concerns that similar policies have a chilling effect on their First Amendment rights to complain about prison abuse. , policy violations and violations of constitutional rights, Candelaria said.
“This policy has fundamentally dramatically reduced inmates’ ability to access publications of any type, ranging from Playboy to the Yale Law Journal,” Candelaria said. “That’s a concern for me because not all posts are alike.”
For example, an incarcerated person might try to buy a publication dealing with constitutional law issues or prisoners’ rights, Candelaria said, or any publication that could inform him and allow him to express his concerns about violations of the constitutional rights, human rights rights or state law within the prison system.
Those incarcerated still have the right to engage in political discourse, he said, even if that right is significantly restricted.
“I think that’s another way this policy directly undermines those rights,” Candelaria said. He is investigating on behalf of several clients who have lost access to publications in preparation for a possible class action lawsuit against the correctional service for First Amendment violations.
Courts have consistently said that prison guards and corrections departments can adopt these kinds of mail policies, but whether the state’s new policy violates the First Amendment to the New Mexico Constitution remains to be seen.
Candelaria’s complaint says the department “used public money to pay for Securus’ services, without a clear benefit to prison security or the public.” The request for documents sought to determine the department’s “basis for spending public money on the Securus contract and for its recent drastic policy changes,” the complaint states.
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By the time the lawsuit was filed on July 29, the state had not responded to the request for records at all. But on Wednesday, seven months after Candelaria submitted the request for documents, the department turned over a few hundred pages of documents, he said. He always examines them to see if they conform to his request.
One of the files, Candelaria said, contains an invoice from December 2021 showing that the Department paid Securus $31,000 for handling the mail.
“It was no small contract that was awarded,” he said. “I’m looking very closely at their production to determine if state purchasing law has been followed or if their procurement code has been followed or violated with respect to this contract. At this time and based on my initial review, I see no evidence that the Department has issued a competitive bid for this contract. »
Candelaria said he plans to make the full filings available on his law firm’s website.
The most effective way to communicate and show solidarity with those incarcerated is to write to them by mail, Montoya said, and so IWOC works in tandem with affinity groups, including Black and Pink and Anarchist Black Crossand anyone with the ability to write.
People want to learn about poetry, their own and other cultures, history – not only as a form of escape from brutalities and abhorrent conditions of confinement, Montoya said, but also as a form of self-expression.
“Even if these systems try to strip someone of their individuality, it will never be something that will be stripped, because of the ingenuity of the human mind,” she said. “The newsletter was a dream meant to activate the human spirit of people who are struggling, because these systems are made and designed to oppress.”
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Part of the inspiration for the newsletter is the Nelson Mandela Rulesthe minimum standards for the treatment of detainees adopted by the United Nations, which include requirements for communication with the outside world, such as being regularly informed of important news through newspapers, periodicals, broadcasts or conferences.
“Reading and literature is something people can use to connect not just to the outside world, but also to the dreams, hopes and aspirations they may have when they get out there,” Montoya said.
She sees the prison’s mail restrictions as another example of prison officials denying basic necessities to inmates, which she says is a recipe for disaster. We only have to go back a few decades to riot at New Mexico Penitentiary in Santa Fe in 1980, she said.
“As the worst conditions become, violence often tends to erupt in these situations,” Montoya said. “You can’t take that much from someone until things flip like a house of cards.”