New prison mail policy costly to families — emotionally and financially

State could spend over $300,000 over the coming year with the corporation that makes photocopies

By: - January 20, 2022 5:45 am

A card JoeRay Barela made in prison and sent to his fiance, Amy Gonzales. (Photo courtesy of Amy Gonzales)

The feeling of holding a physical piece of mail created by a loved one is “like no other,” according to Joe Barela, a father of three from Albuquerque.

His family has always supported him with visits, mail, and phone calls during his time in and out of prison since 1996.

In his 13-by-7-foot cell at the Penitentiary of New Mexico, Barela hangs pictures on a wall, but only within the designated spot the guards allow him.

Prayers, drawings and other small messages from his three children surround a large drawing of Azrael, the cat owned by the evil wizard Gargamel in the 1980s television show “The Smurfs.”

The drawing was by his fiancee, Amy Gonzales. He proposed six months ago.

“I tell her that I put it on my fridge,” he says with a laugh. “I don’t have a fridge, but that’s where I would put it, if I did have a fridge.”

The New Mexico Corrections Department on Dec. 29 told prisoners’ families that it will be banning physical mail in prisons, and directed them to send their letters to a private company, Securus, in Florida that creates photocopies and sends them to the prisons. Securus is the same company that operates phones in the state’s prisons and developed a voice recognition program that extracts “voice prints” from prisoners’ calls.

A note Amy Gonzales plans to send to her fiance, who is currently incarcerated in the Penitentiary of New Mexico. (Photo courtesy of Amy Gonzales)

The department said the change is because of incidents where contraband material was smuggled in through the mail. Department spokesperson Eric Harrison said the contractor processing the mail will charge the state $3.50 for each prisoner in the state’s prisons, at the beginning of every month. There is no other payment required by the company, Harrison said.

There were 5,588 people in state prisons as of Wednesday, Jan. 19, according to the Department. That means Securus would make $27,940 this month.

If the prison population in New Mexico stayed the same over the course of the next year, Securus would make $335,280 photocopying mail.

But the new policy creates new problems for loved ones sending mail. Gonzales said she tries to send Barela at least two pictures per month, and sometimes they require a larger, more expensive envelope. One of her recent envelopes was returned because there’s now a prohibition on mail consisting of cardboard or rigid parchment that can’t run through the scanner used by Securus. 

Barela said he filed an informal complaint about the mail. He said prisoners shouldn’t be subject to collective punishment because of the actions of a few.

“If somebody wants to mess it up, … take their mail,” Barela said. “Why are you going to take my mail when I’m not doing such a thing, you know?”

The American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico opposes the policy because it violates people’s basic humanity, said Denali Wilson, a staff attorney.

Wilson pointed out that people in the free world are able to keep in touch in many ways, and some might even ask, “Who uses the mail anyway?”

The answer, she said, is prisoners.

“Baked into the design of prison is isolating people from their supports, which means that mail has been and continues to be one of the few remaining lifelines that people in prison have,” Wilson said. “And now, with this policy, that’s even being chipped away.”

Barela says he is one of the lucky prisoners able to keep in touch with family. Others in the prison, he said, often are not even aware they are receiving letters from family because prison officials do not tell them when mail addressed to them gets rejected.

“I cherish those — everybody does,” Barela said. “It’s not only me, it’s everybody in here.”

Various cards and images sent between JoeRay Barela and his fiancee Amy Gonzales (Photos courtesy of Amy Gonzales)

He’s having multiple issues with prison mail under the new policy, and said the situation depresses him, because mail is one thing a prisoner really looks forward to.

When they pass by your cell and you don’t get none, it’s like, ‘Oh my God, well, you know, maybe tomorrow.' And then tomorrow never comes.

– JoeRay Barela

Prison officials do not tell prisoners when a piece of mail has been rejected, or whether it’s been returned to sender, Barela said.

“We don’t know what happens with our mail,” Barela said.

It’s also affecting other parts of Barela’s life. His sister has power of attorney on his bank account. She has to send him information about his bank account, like his transaction history and tax documents. But prison officials under the new policy require him to send those records to be reviewed and copied by Securus in Florida, which he says is unreasonable.

Gonzales sends him pictures of their children and drawings they make for him. He said his children want to draw him things using crayons and markers, but the family had to tell them to only use pens with black or blue ink, because of state policy.

“It’s just out of hand,” he said. “It’s really getting to the point where it’s like, how are we supposed to keep in contact with our family?”

Violence and dehumanization

Many of these kinds of restrictions are enacted in the name of safety and security, Wilson said, but in reality the only thing that they serve to do is to dehumanize people, which does not make prisons safe — nor the communities to which those people return.

At the individual level, violence is driven by shame, isolation, exposure to violence, and an inability to meet one’s economic needs, all of which are also the “core features of imprisonment,” writes Danielle Sered, founder and director of Common Justice and an expert on violence.

Extreme isolation from families and support systems is what fuels drug use in prison, Wilson said, so prison officials shouldn’t use illegal drugs as the reason to isolate people further.

“Isolating people and shaming people and putting them in a place that is filled with exposure to violence — how is this our response to violence and harm?” Wilson asked. “I think this mail policy fits square within this larger conversation of ineffective and uncreative and cruel response to harm and tragedy in our communities.”

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Austin Fisher
Austin Fisher

Austin Fisher is a journalist based in Santa Fe. He has worked for newspapers in New Mexico and his home state of Kansas, including the Topeka Capital-Journal, the Garden City Telegram, the Rio Grande SUN and the Santa Fe Reporter. Since starting a full-time career in reporting in 2015, he’s aimed to use journalism to lift up voices that typically go unheard in public debates around economic inequality, policing and environmental racism.