New pain felt over Pa. DOC mail policy at holidays

For the 25 years that her son has been incarcerated in state prison, Lorraine Haw has sent him a Christmas card every year. But due to a new state prison policy, under which all mail is scanned and copies are sent to inmates, she doesn’t see the point anymore.

“This will be my first year that I’m not able to,” Haw told Metro. “I’m not sending one thing at all until all of this changes. I want him to receive the card I sent him, not a photocopy.”

The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (DOC) instituted controversial new mail and book policies on Aug. 29 to crack down on drug smuggling after a rash of guards falling ill due to suspected drug exposure over the summer. Currently, all inmates still get mail, but they are forbidden from receiving original letters. All non-legal mail gets sent to a central facility in Florida, scanned, destroyed, and the inmates get a copy.  Legal mail gets opened by prison staff in front of inmates, photocopies are given to the inmates, and the originals get destroyed. 

Drug smuggling was “an increasing threat to the roughly 13,000 staff and 47,000 inmates who work and live in our facilities. … Mail was the number one path of contraband into facilities and one staff member was sickened while opening mail at one of our facilities,” a DOC spokeswoman said via email. “Corrections officers and staff who work inside the 25 state correctional institutions risk their lives every day.  These individuals should not have to fear exposure to drugs that could sicken them as well.”

Haw has been sending drawings from his kids and herself played tic-tac-toe with him by mail to her son, Philip Ocampo, for 25 years, ever since he was convicted of felony murder for participating in a robbery during which an accomplice killed the victim. He is now serving the mandatory sentence for that charge — life without parole. Haw said the policy so estranges her from the actual letter-writing process that she would rather not send anything at all.

“He’s getting a photocopy of a piece of paper that a stranger is photocopying from the card I sent him. There’s no feeling on the card, and he’s not getting it straight from me, from my hand, from his mother,” she said. “When I write my son I cry over my letters, I even throw perfume of mine over it so he’ll be able to smell me and not forget me. You can’t copy that.”

Haw, an organizer with the Coalition to Abolish Death By Incarceration (CADBI), was joined by other family members of inmates and activists with groups like Decarcerate PA and Books through Bars on Dec. 19 to deliver holiday cards on Tuesday to Gov. Tom Wolf’s Philadelphia office in protest of the mail policy.

Patricia Vickers, another mother of an inmate and organizer with CABDI as well as the Human Rights Coalition, also said she no longer sees the point in sending holiday letters or even birthday cards.

“My son’s birthday is this month also,” Vickers said. “I take a lot of time with my cards. I try to get that special card that says what I’m trying to express. Sometimes the card says it better than what I can say in words, the color, the picture in front of it, and all of that work is just gone. He doesn’t get to touch the card, he doesn’t get to keep it, it’s destroyed, the actual card is destroyed, a picture is taken of the card, and that goes to him. It destroys the whole impact. The bottom line is I didn’t send him a card, I sent him an email saying ‘happy birthday.’ … That’s just so impersonal. That’s what you would do for an acquaintance, text them happy birthday, not someone you love, your son.”

Vickers’ son is also serving life in prison, for a murder committed when he was 17. (A recent Supreme Court decision on so-called juvenile lifers made him eligible for parole; parole was rejected this year and he is up for reconsideration next year.)

After a public outcry over the banning of book donations, the DOC changed its policies around book donations, which can now be received at a central Secure Processing Center before going to inmates.

Haw and Vickers both questioned the wisdom of the mail policy — the contract for which costs $15 million. They said said all inmates should not be banned from mail due to the illegal actions of the few, and questioned if mail could be safely processed at a central facility like book donations.

The DOC said their mail processor, the Smart Communications facility in Florida, has reduced turnaround time to 24 hours from receipt of mail to delivery to prisons, but “does not have the staff at the center to screen and process thousands of pieces of mail each week (one million pages a month).” 

The governor acknowledged the complaints at a Christmas tree-lighting ceremony last week, saying, “We obviously have a safety problem that affects the prisoners and the staff and we want to do something about that to keep everyone safe. I think we are trying to do it the right way and we are working with different groups to protect everyone’s constitutional rights.”

Vickers said representatives at Wolf’s office committed to scheduling a meeting with activists and representatives of the governor on the issue at a future date. 

“All evidence shows maintaining family and community ties is so important to reducing recidivism,” said Layne Mullett, an organizer with Decarcerate PA and CADBI. “Gov. Wolf and the DOC are intentionally making that connection harder … to already experience the disconnection of being hours way from friends and family and loved ones, and being surrounded by concrete walls, its makes all the  little points of connection even more meaningful.”

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