Criminal Justice

How the Florida Prison System Stole Kids' Christmas Cards

As of yesterday, controversial changes to the Florida Department of Corrections' paper mail policy will go into effect that will digitize all incoming routine mail.
As of yesterday, controversial changes to the Florida Department of Corrections' paper mail policy will go into effect that will digitize all incoming routine mail. Photo by RODNAE Productions/Pexels
Christmas came early in the Florida prison system this year.

Though it was only August 26, Matthew Johnson penned a holiday greeting card on lined paper to his 7-year-old daughter, who lives about 500 miles away. He dotted the "i" in her name with a small heart, called her his "lighthouse," and wished her and her mother "Happy Holidays!"

"Alice, my love, my guiding light, my most beloved angel. I love and miss you more than I can say," wrote Johnson, who is incarcerated at Santa Rosa Correctional Institution in the Panhandle. "I wish that I could be there right now, but we must wait just a little while longer. The wait will be worth it, my starstuff. I have so many amazing things to show you, to teach you, to share with you."

The nearly four-month lead time was carefully orchestrated by Florida Cares to ensure that hundreds of children like Alice the opportunity to receive a physical holiday card from their incarcerated parent — perhaps for the last time. As of yesterday, controversial changes to Florida Department of Corrections (FDC) policy went into effect; henceforth most incoming routine mail will be digitized.

While that doesn't seem as if it would prevent children from receiving outgoing mail from a parent, it does mean incarcerated people will no longer be permitted to receive the handful of blank greeting cards and envelopes Florida Cares provides for them to fill out and send to their loved ones around the holidays.

"I know it's just a card, but for incarcerated people that have so little, a card means so much," Denise Rock, executive director of Florida Cares, tells New Times. "Some [recipients] sleep with that letter in their hand, under their pillow. Some people smell it, they rub their fingers over the penmanship."
click to enlarge Matthew Johnson, who is incarcerated at Santa Rosa Correctional Institution, wishes his 7-year-old daughter happy holidays in a handwritten letter penned in August. - IMAGE COURTESY OF FLORIDA CARES
Matthew Johnson, who is incarcerated at Santa Rosa Correctional Institution, wishes his 7-year-old daughter happy holidays in a handwritten letter penned in August.
Image courtesy of Florida Cares
For the past five years, the prisoner advocacy group has helped incarcerated parents across Florida send gifts to their children along with handwritten notes. The charity scrambled to send inmates blank greeting cards before the new rule took effect. Their goal is to send 500 children gifts from their incarcerated parents along with the handwritten cards.

While the rule is effective as of November 29, the FDC says it is working to establish an implementation schedule and will provide notice to incarcerated people "well in advance of the go-live date," according to Paul Walker, an FDC spokesperson.

Under the rule changes, all incoming routine paper mail – which is typically delivered to prisoners Monday through Friday – will be scanned into an electronic format and made available for viewing on a prisoner's tablet or via kiosks from JPay, the prison contractor that provides communication services to Florida's prisons and jails. In addition to blank greeting cards, incarcerated people will no longer be able to receive postage or physical prints of photos from the outside.

"That is really unfortunate," Rock says. "Mail is their best source of communicating with the outside world."

Back in May, the FDC proposed that all physical mail (including greeting cards) entering Florida prisons would be digitized, with the exception of privileged correspondence (which includes letters from prisoners’ attorneys and the press) and legal documents.

FDC officials said they were aiming to crack down on contraband. But the plan drew criticism from activists, as well as a number of prisoners and their families who rely on paper mail to stay in touch.

After a legislative committee raised concerns about the proposed restrictions, the FDC revised the plan in September to allow incarcerated people to receive up to a total of 15 pages of actual written correspondence. (Previously, prisoners could receive an unlimited number of handwritten pages and 15 additional pages of non-handwritten pages, including photos.)

And greeting cards. Though no physical greeting cards – be they blank or written – were allowed under the original proposal, the recent changes allowed for greeting cards smaller than 8.5 by 14 inches.

Prison officials have said that they "intend to ask" the state’s canteen vendor to stock blank greeting cards for sale to inmates so they can create their own greeting cards without assistance from Florida Cares.

Rock is skeptical that plan will work, given that prisons often run out of basic items like batteries and lettuce for long periods of time, as it is.

Paper mail is one of the most accessible and personal forms of communication for many inmates and their families. Florida inmates do use JPay tablets and kiosks to keep in touch electronically, but they have to pay for the service. Prices can fluctuate, and costs add up quickly.

For example, a single email sent via JPay costs 39 cents, a 15-minute video call costs $2.95. The U.S. Postal Service, on the other hand, charges 58 cents for a first-class mail stamp.

Laurette Philipsen, Florida Cares' communications director and a formerly incarcerated person, says mail call was the highlight of her days at Lowell Correctional Institution in Ocala. She says handwritten letters, photographs, and cards from her family meant "everything" to her. Sometimes, they even smelled like home.

"I can think of many nights that I slept with a photograph of my family," Philipsen tells New Times. "You can't do that with a tablet."

Philipsen was very close to her uncle, who she says died during her eight-year prison sentence. It was devastating, she recalls, but she feels fortunate to have been able to keep a handwritten letter he sent her while she was incarcerated.

"I can't imagine to this day what it would be like not to have his words to look at," Philipsen says. "I came home with my letters and my cards, and I still have them."
click to enlarge An incarcerated mother wishes her daughter a Merry Christmas in a letter written during summer. - IMAGE COURTESY OF FLORIDA CARES
An incarcerated mother wishes her daughter a Merry Christmas in a letter written during summer.
Image courtesy of Florida Cares

The FDC says more than 35,000 contraband items were discovered in routine mail between January 2019 and April 2021, including "extremely dangerous substances, such as liquid chemicals used to lace synthetic marijuana."

Other states have successfully banned paper mail from their prison systems. In 2018, the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections banned all paper mail from its prison system following an incident in which, according to state officials, several prison staffers fell ill from exposure to synthetic cannabinoids that had been smuggled into correctional facilities by being soaked onto paper. However, Mark Neavyn, director of the fellowship in medical toxicology at the University of Massachusetts, told Vice News that unless the officers had been sucking on the paper it was highly unlikely that they could absorb a significant amount of cannabinoids from simply touching it.

The FDC declined to answer whether any specific contraband incidents spurred the policy change. But in an emailed statement to New Times, Walker writes that contraband within prisons is a "national epidemic," and that the FDC is "taking aggressive measures to prevent their introduction."

Adds Walker: "Regardless of the type, frequency, percentage, or manner in which contraband is introduced into a correctional institution, FDC is committed to preventing dangerous items and substances from causing harm to staff and inmates in Florida correctional institutions."

Rock argues that the rule punishes all prisoners and their families, rather than just those who attempt to sneak in contraband.

"People are going to break the rules, I'm not saying that nobody is going to try to send contraband in again," she says. "But I am saying when they do, prosecute them, but don't prosecute people that are not doing anything wrong, because that number far, far, far, far, far, far exceeds the number of people that are doing wrong."
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Alex DeLuca is a fellow at Miami New Times.
Contact: Alex DeLuca