Censorship of communication between incarcerated people and the outside world is nothing new, but something about that power dynamic changed in 2020, said Courtney Montoya, an organizer with the New Mexico chapter of the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee.
Conditions are controlled by prison officials, she said, and with so many people crowded inside, people have few ways to protect themselves from getting infected with COVID.
A series of riots and hunger strikes in prisons and jails across the United States sought to improve the treatment of incarcerated people, specifically medical treatment and protection against getting infected, she said.
The Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee is the prisoner-led section of the Industrial Workers of the World union. Incarcerated members of IWOC organize for liberation, basic human rights and basic daily necessities. Formerly incarcerated people and relatives of incarcerated people on the outside work as liaisons doing administrative tasks that can’t be done from behind prison walls.
Since late 2019, New Mexico IWOC’s letter-writing program has been connecting people inside and outside the walls throughout the Southwest, including Arizona, New Mexico and Texas, Montoya said. As part of the program, it was producing a newsletter that was getting into nearly every New Mexico prison, she said.
Volunteers would write about current events, pen poetry, produce artwork — and relay information about how incarcerated people can protect themselves from getting infected with COVID.
A lot of New Mexico prisons limit publications to four physical pages or less, Montoya said, so they printed each newsletter on four pages front and back, for a total of eight pages. They started including on each copy a legal disclaimer warning anyone handling it that it’s illegal to tamper with mail.
Regardless, the newsletter has been hindered by New Mexico’s new prison mail policy, she said.
Since Feb. 1, personal mail to any New Mexico prison must be sent to Securus in Florida. The company copies the mail and then sends along the copies. N.M. Department of Corrections officials said the policy is meant to curb the flow of drugs into the prisons, but legislative analysts showed that hasn’t happened yet despite the expense to the state.
Any mail sent directly to a prison is returned to the sender unopened. Medical, legal and other confidential mail still goes directly to incarcerated people.
After the new procedure went into effect, IWOC members started seeing more and more mail sent to the prisons getting returned with rejection letters saying “newsletters are not allowed,” Montoya said.
The policy restricts incarcerated people’s access to all kinds of publications, according to a recent lawsuit asking a judge to force the state’s Corrections Department to hand over records about how the policy came about.
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According to the complaint, the policy prohibits incarcerated people from receiving “magazines or similar publications in the mail; including publications which may deal with prisoner civil rights or legal issues.”
The civil rights lawyer who filed the case, State Sen. Jacob Candelaria (DTS-Albuquerque), said in an interview Thursday he has multiple incarcerated clients who have lost access to publications as a result of the policy.
Corrections Department spokesperson Carmelina Hart said Thursday magazines cannot be scanned by the new Securus equipment, because the pages are bound together.
“So a magazine in its bound form cannot be accepted,” Hart said. “If someone sends an article or clipping unbound, in a form that can be scanned, then that could be accepted.”
Some publications are still getting behind the walls, though. Mara Taub, the longtime editor of the Coalition for Prisoners Rights Newsletter, said in an email that hers was still getting inside as of Thursday.
Potential First Amendment lawsuit
When the state tries to limit incarcerated people’s mail and their communication with the outside world, courts have raised concerns that similar policies have a chilling effect on their First Amendment rights to complain about prison abuses, policy violations and constitutional rights violations, Candelaria said.
“This policy has basically significantly curtailed the ability of inmates to access publications of any type, ranging from Playboy to the Yale Law Journal,” Candelaria said. “It is a concern to me because not all publications are alike.”
For example, an incarcerated person might be trying to buy a publication dealing with constitutional law issues, or prisoners’ rights issues, Candelaria said, or any publication that may inform and provide them with the ability to express concerns about violations of constitutional rights, human rights, or state law within the prison system.
Incarcerated people still have the right to engage in political speech, he said, even if that right is significantly restricted.
“I think that is another way that this policy is directly infringing upon those rights,” Candelaria said. He is investigating on behalf of several clients who have lost access to publications in preparation for a possible class action lawsuit against the Corrections Department for First Amendment violations.
Courts have consistently said that prison wardens and corrections departments can adopt these kinds of mail policies, but there remains a question about whether the state’s new policy violates the First Amendment of the New Mexico Constitution.
Candelaria’s complaint states that the department “has used public money to pay for Securus’ services, without a clear benefit to prison safety or the public.” The records request was meant to figure out the department’s “basis for spending public money on the Securus contract and for their recent draconian policy changes,” the complaint states.
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As of the time the complaint was filed on July 29, the state had not responded to the records request at all. But on Wednesday, seven months after Candelaria submitted the records request, the department turned over a couple hundred pages of documents, he said. He is still reviewing them to see if they comply with his request.
One of the records, Candelaria said, contains an invoice from December 2021 showing that the Department paid Securus $31,000 for processing the mail.
“This is not a small contract that was awarded,” he said. “I’m looking very closely at their production to determine whether or not the state Purchasing Act was followed or their procurement code was followed or violated with respect to this contract. At current and based on my initial review, I see no evidence that the Department issued a competitive bid for this contract.”
Candelaria said he plans to make the entire set of records available on his law firm’s website.
The most effective way to communicate and show solidarity with incarcerated people is by writing to them through the mail, Montoya said, and so IWOC works in tandem with affinity groups including Black and Pink and Anarchist Black Cross, and anyone with the capacity to write.
People want to learn about poetry, their own and other cultures, history — not only as a form of escape from brutalizations and abhorrent conditions of confinement, Montoya said, but also as a form of self-expression.
“As much as these systems try to strip one of individuality, that will never be something that is stripped away, because of the ingenuity of the human spirit,” she said. “The newsletter was a dream intended to activate the human spirit of people who are struggling, because these systems are made and designed to oppress.”
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Part of the inspiration for the newsletter is the Nelson Mandela Rules, the minimum standards for the treatment of prisoners adopted by the United Nations, which include requirements for communication with the outside world, like being regularly informed on important news items through newspapers, periodicals, broadcasts or lectures.
“Reading and literature are something people can use to connect not only to the outside world but to dreams, hopes and aspirations that they may have when they’re getting out,” Montoya said.
She sees the prison mail restrictions as another example of prison officials denying basic necessities to incarcerated people, which she said is a recipe for disaster. One only needs to look back a few decades to the riot at the Penitentiary of New Mexico in Santa Fe in 1980, she said.
“The worst that conditions get, violence often tends to break out in those situations,” Montoya said. “You can only take so much from someone until things topple over like a house of cards.”