Voices from the Inside Out: New prison policy violates the law

February 5, 2022

From the January-February 2022 issue of News & Letters

The Wisconsin Department of Corrections recently enacted a policy in which it contracted with an outside source to photocopy mail sent to its incarcerated wards, to begin within thirty days. They made this contract to reduce the influx of psychoactive substances some have sent through the mail. While the agency may enact such a policy, it may not do so in a manner that impinges upon the rights of the incarcerated, nor contrary to duties it must perform as established by law.


First, incarcerated persons have a property interest in the original mailings. While the DOC may disallow the originals from an institution, the agency must have a mechanism by which the incarcerated may dispose of those original mailings—be it mailing or shipping them to friends and family, or throwing the items away.

A photocopy of a child’s drawing lacks the value of the original, both to the child artist as well as the parent or family member recipient. To destroy the original without permitting recovery steals something from that family, hindering, in some ways, rehabilitation.

That property interest creates a Constitutional Due Process issue. The department must have a legitimate means for the incarcerated person to protect an original mailing sent to him or her. Oddly, the DOC already has policies for the incarcerated to “dispose” of disallowed items, it has simply decided to illegally rescind them through the use of a contractor.

Second, one of the mechanisms of the new policy returns to sender any mail that arrives directly to an institution. State and federal law require a prison to process mail, therefore an institution violates the law by returning mail to sender. What message does a correctional facility breaking the law express to people incarcerated for breaking the law?

Additionally, a 30-day window for prisoners to inform their friends and family of changes, which expired just before the holidays, seems counterintuitive to rehabilitation. Studies show that outside support aids reentry success. How will this policy affect those who irregularly write their incarcerated friends and family? The USPS allows six months for changes of address, why can’t the Wisconsin DOC follow that model?

Third, the incarcerated have a statutory right to receive gift money in any negotiable form sent to them at an institution. Although the department has contracted with another vendor to manage most incoming money, how will the vendor contracted to photocopy mail perform the duty created by statute? And, if an institution will return to sender any mailing it directly receives, and if that mailing contains gift money, it then just as clearly violates a right the incarcerated have, and neglects a duty it has an obligation to perform.


Fourth, destruction of original mail items implies that the contractor will test each piece of mail (and photograph) it receives for drugs. A review of drug-related incidents suggests only a small percentage of individuals engages in the illicit smuggling of drugs. Why not focus on those few who break laws using the USPS to enter illegal substances into prisons? Instead, the DOC would violate the rights of the incarcerated to test 100% of incoming mail. What a waste of taxpayer dollars.

While people incarcerated in prisons have done more than skip Sunday school, they spend time separate from society as their punishment for crimes. Each retains his or her basic human dignity, and maintains many of the basic rights granted all American citizens. For the Wisconsin DOC to ignore that violates more than statute. Dostoyevsky said that if you want to measure a society you need only look to its prisons.

—Sean J. White

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