Florida Federal Prison Bans Families From Mailing Books, Greeting Cards

Federal Bureau of Prisons
Update: It appears that the policy change at FCI Coleman is part of a national — and heavily criticized — rule change.

While they're locked up, inmates rely on books and letters to learn new skills and keep in contact with their loved ones and the outside world. But administrators in charge of the Federal Correctional Complex in Coleman, Florida, have suddenly banned prisoners from receiving books, greeting cards, and letters written in crayon or marker, according to internal memos first obtained by the Families Against Mandatory Minimums foundation. The American Civil Liberties Union of Florida tells New Times it's researching how to fight the move.

According to the memos, Coleman warden R.C. Cheatham says the changes would take effect May 14 at the Central Florida compound. He doesn't specify why the changes are being made, but at least one reason seems to be profit-driven: Cheatham says the only way inmates will now be allowed to obtain books is by purchasing them from internal prison suppliers, which charge a 30 percent tax.

"Effective Monday, May 14, 2018, books from a publisher, book club, bookstore, or friends and family will no longer be accepted through the mail," Cheatham's memo reads. "Books will be rejected by mailroom staff and returned to sender."

In a separate memo the next day, he bluntly writes that "all 'homemade' and commercial greeting cards will be rejected." He adds that inmate letters written on nonwhite paper or card stock or in crayon or marker (the kinds of writing implements children use) will also be returned. And, as of May 14, envelopes from lawyers will be photocopied and given to inmates.

"You will not get to keep the original envelope," the memo reads. Spokespeople for the Bureau of Prisons did not immediately respond to New Times' request for comment.
The ACLU of Florida says the plan is backwards, harmful, and cruel.

"As we all know, 83 percent of folks who are incarcerated end up returning back into society," says Melba Pearson, the ACLU of Florida's deputy director. "So the question now is 'What kind of neighbor to do you want?' Someone who has a connection with the outside world, who's been reading and educating themselves and spending time improving themselves? Someone will be better positioned to get a job if they read, and if someone is very intent on reading and focused on those kinds of educational activities, he or she is less likely to be fighting or engaging in other behaviors that are dangerous to others who are incarcerated."

Though outside books, letters, or cards could contain drugs or other contraband, she says guards already thoroughly search each piece of mail in order to prevent illegal items from entering the prison. Banning those letters, she says, just further cuts an inmate off from society and helps guarantee that person will be lost after returning to civilian life.

"And the fact that they're adding a 30 percent tax when they're forcing you to buy books through the prison, that's simply the prison system trying to get money from inmates any way they can," she adds.

Earlier this year, the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision instituted a similar, statewide rule that forced inmates to buy or receive books from only a handful of approved book sellers. The so-called package ban also applied to fresh food, clothing, and some household items. After numerous activists and inmates denounced the measure as cruel, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo reversed his state's decision.

The federal decision also comes as inmates' families also protest proposed visitation cuts at state-level Department of Corrections facilities.
Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) argues the changes are a travesty that do nothing to improve prisoner or civilian safety.

"Educational opportunities are already few and far between for prisoners, so it is critically important that prisoners have easy access to books," FAMM wrote, adding in another post: "If our leaders care about families, they should stop proposing and passing these petty and cruel rules."