Prisoners are persons whom most of us would rather not think about. Banished from everyday sight, they exist in a shadow world that only dimly enters our awareness. They are members of a "total institution" that controls their daily existence in a way that few of us can imagine. "[P]rison is a complex of physical arrangements and of measures, all wholly governmental, all wholly performed by agents of government, which determine the total existence of certain human beings (except perhaps in the realm of the spirit, and inevitably there as well) from sundown to sundown, sleeping, walking, speaking, silent, working, playing, viewing, eating, voiding, reading, alone, with others. . . ." It is thus easy to think of prisoners as members of a separate netherworld, driven by its own demands, ordered by its own customs, ruled by those whose claim to power rests on raw necessity. -- Justice William Brennan, dissenting in O’Lone v. Estate of Shabazz, 482 U.S. 342, 354-55 (1987).

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Mail Call

[This was written sometime near the end of May while in prison.]

I was surprised not only by the number of inmates who write letters, but the sheer volume of those letters. Guys spend hours writing.

I guess I shouldn't have been surprised. Phone calls are expensive and limited to 300 minutes per month if you can afford the $69 ($.23/min). Visits are oftentimes prohibitively expensive, both in time and dollars, for family members.

Thus, there is mail, now $.41 for a 1 oz letter.

All letters except legal mail must be sent through "Inmate Mail" which is a mailbox on the back of the main building near the control center entrance. It is my understanding that it is processed every morning. All outgoing mail is subject to search although I don't think BOP has the resources to read every letter that 700 inmates write. In fact, my wife reports that she sees no evidence that any of my letters have been tampered with (although I am told they are very good at resealing). This was particularly surprising once they knew I was writing a blog.

Stamps can be purchased at the commissary every Monday afternoon from 4-7p and there is a postage meter in the library. I was able to determine that I can send 6 normal-sized pages for one stamp.

Incoming mail is sorted by dorm and delivered to the mail room for each dorm which is on the same hallway as the rooms. The mail room has mailbox slots on the wall for the CO to separate the mail alphabetically, one slot for each letter of the alphabet. Several times throughout the evening between about 5-9:30p, you will hear an announcement over the compound intercom: "Mail Call, Dorm C (or Dorm B or Dorm A), gentleman come and get your mail." Some COs are formal, some are lighthearted and cute, about the announcement. You simply line up down the hall, give him your last name (although if it is the regular mail CO, he already knows), and he hands you your mail.

All received mail, other than from magazine, book, or newspaper publishers, has been opened. The top edge of the envelope has been cut open and then stapled shut. I seriously doubt that they read the contents. I suspect they quickly scan the contents of the envelope for contraband (e.g. inappropriate pics, newspaper clippings, etc.) and then close it up. My sister-in-law sent me one of those musical cards for my birthday and they ripped out the music chip! I also received a letter from a friend who had enclosed newspaper clippings from the Wachovia Championships golf tournament in Charlotte but the clippings were confiscated and sent back. Instead I received an official DOJ form letter letting me know that the clippings were returned. Is that not absurd?

There may be inmates on a "hot list" that may require more in-depth monitoring but I have no direct knowledge of that.

As for how long it takes to send and receive mail, I had a friend send a letter from Charlotte on a Saturday (it was postmarked on Saturday) and I received it on Monday! I have also received letters from my wife that took 5 days. Go figure.

In my first 50 days, I have received 17 letters from my wife, 2 from my in-laws, one from my friend Steve at church, one each from my friends Colleen and Ryan and, finally, a card from the Nykamps in Ethiopia!

PS While officially all outgoing mail must be sent through the prison mailbox, FPC Pensacola is a work camp in which a majority of the inmates work off-site. While inmates are subject to search both leaving and returning, this access to the outside world is not only the primary source for contraband (e.g. cigarettes and cell phones), it also makes it relatively easy to send mail via an outside mailbox if you have a message you absolutely don't want read by BOP. Even in my case, where I do not work off of the base that the prison is located on, and thus do not have easy access to another mailbox, if I really needed to bypass the inmate mail system, I could easily find an inmate to do it for me.

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