Mechanisms of communicative control (and resistance): Carceral incorporations of ICT and communication policies for physical mail
First Monday

Mechanisms of communicative control (and resistance): Carceral incorporations of ICT and communication policies for physical mail by Jeanie Austin

The communication practices of people inside of United States carceral institutions has long been of interest to individuals with the power to police, surveil, and punish. Communications policies in jails and prisons reflect this impetus. Previous research on communications policies in carceral institutions approached the topic from an ideology that embraced the supposed normative functioning of the carceral institution and did not incorporate the role of ICTs as surveillance technologies implanted in carceral settings. Using the Wayback Machine as a means to review changes in formal and informal publicly available policies related to communication, this research examines three carceral sites to illustrate how increasing use of ICTs may shape policies for physical communications. The research reveals that the increasing use of ICTs is shared across the local, state, and federal levels, that physical correspondence may be more limited in high ICT carceral environments, that ICTs for communication often market themselves as an extension of surveillance, and that the incorporation of ICTs into communication policies blurs the line between private and public carceral practices.


Letter writing: Physical and digital discipline
Methodological approaches to the Wayback Machine and Internet Archive
Communication policy changes
Washoe County Detention Facility
Pennsylvania Department of Corrections
Federal Bureau of Prisons
Private prisons and other parties




Advocating for people inside of America’s carceral institutions requires knowledge of how carceral institutions structure their communications policies. The communications policies of carceral institutions concern obvious and more hidden aspects of how people who are incarcerated receive information and communicate with people outside of the carceral institutions where they are confined. The obvious areas covered in these policies typically include processes for physical mail and the types of information and extent of information that can be received in a letter or through a digital communication. The obscured, though sometimes publicly available, concern details about the cost to access and the administration of forms of information and communications technologies (ICTs), whether or not people detained in certain areas of carceral institutions can access any form of information at all, and other processes that may not be immediately identifiable to people who have not felt the immediate reach of incarceration. Changes in communications policies of carceral institutions are often undertaken with little or no notice, and involve subjective processes of determining what information can and cannot enter the institution (Bauer, 2018). Using the Wayback Machine to track published policies of three carceral institutions — at county, state, and federal levels — this research illuminates some of the difficult to track policy changes that have real effects on the communications practices of people who are incarcerated. Given that changes are often not recorded, are informally implemented, or are subjectively enforced, it is not possible to trace changes across a number of carceral institutions. Rather, an understanding of how communications polices shift reveals how interactions with friends, family members, and larger communities are constrained, surveilled, and potentially used as data to inform algorithmic predictions about individual behavior. Communications policies can also affect information access — they may limit the amount of information an individual who is incarcerated is able to receive, restrict their access to books or magazines, create new policies for monitoring legal mail (despite federal protections) or introduce ICTs, such as tablets with content regulated by third-party vendors and pay-to-play access. In each case, further limiting communications in order to direct information access through mechanisms that also exist to harvest data is a force of state control and constitutes a form of state oppression for communities that are already subject to heavy surveillance (Beauchamp, 2019; Khan, et al., 2018; Eubanks and Silverman, 2018; Soundararajan, 2018).

Policies of carceral institutions were examined for changes over time using the Wayback Machine digital archive. The Wayback Machine provides a portal into the Internet Archive’s maintained record of sites across the Web. It includes images of Web sites captured at a given date and provides an (incomplete) record of how Web site design and content has changed over time. The most extensive record of changes exists for the Washoe County Detention Facility (jail) in Nevada. The Wayback Machine captured records of the Washoe County Detention Facility policies starting in 2012. Records of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections policies and Frequently Asked Questions regarding what information people who are incarcerated can receive were captured beginning in 2015, with some interruption due to a recent Web site redesign. The page for the Federal Bureau of Prisons was captured in the archive 147 times between 16 December 2013 and 26 January 2019. There are no noticeable differences between the page captured on 16 December 2013 and the current page. Information in the archive is supplemented with information available on the January 2019 instantiations of each facilities’ Web site. Federal level policies were most recently issued in 2011, and are included in this research.

Reviewing the policies reveals institutional anxieties around how, how much, and in what form people who are incarcerated are able to receive information. In addition to the high financial cost people who are incarcerated must pay to access ICTs when they are available (Law, 2018; Riley, 2018), access to ICTs in carceral institutions is heavily limited and monitored (Maass, 2015; Riley, 2018). Most often, books and other publications must be sent directly from publishers and official distributors, increasing the cost of access because carceral institutions will not accept second hand or discounted materials that are sent from a person. Physical letters are often the only course around the expense of other forms of communication. The analysis of policies here focuses primarily on policies that circumscribe physical communications through the United States mail, and situates these policies alongside an examination of the ICT companies and technologies listed on the policy websites for the local, state, and federal institutions.



Letter writing: Physical and digital discipline

There is a long historical tradition of letter writing by people in America’s jails and prisons as an act of resistance to carceral institutions. Resistance to carceral institutions is part of the self-sustaining activities of people and communities most often, and often violently, placed under surveillance and policed in their day-to-day lives. The state simultaneously constructs and reconstructs categories of racialized and gendered belonging through a shifting landscape of laws and extralegal regulations (such as forced detention) while also removing the rights of people who become contained in those categories (Cacho, 2012). This is starkly present in practices of indefinite and forced detention and the implementation of predictive models for policing communities of color, but it is also evident in the quotidian monitoring and policing of public space and access to space that occurs through surveillance technologies and is amplified when people initiate policing in order to regulate activities in their neighborhoods, even when no actual harm has occurred (Abraham, 2017; Haskins, 2019; Hempel, 2017; Paglen, 2016; Reck, 2009; Rosenberg, 2017; Waddell, 2016; Wang, 2017).

Writings by people in penitentiaries and prisons have long been a subject of American fascination. From the picaresque to the political, publications by people who are incarcerated have served as mediated forms of cultural transmission. The most notable analyses of prisoner’s writing make a point to address how racism shapes the form. Franklin’s (1989) early and groundbreaking work connects modes of cultural transmission utilized by people in prison to histories of slavery and shared identities of oppression. Wagner (2009) draws from Black feminist Hortense Spillers to argue that white supremacy and the state have always attempted to mold the narratives of slaves and prisoners into consumable forms for mainstream publication. Corrigan believes that writings by people in prison may be made inherently political due to the state’s trammeling of writers’ agency. In Corrigan’s analysis, “they must circumvent formal prison networks that work to suppress social critique of prison power. Thus, the reading, writing, and thinking of prison writers functions as a perpetual resistance from within an incredibly circumscribed physical, mental, and affective space” [1]. In an environment where power functions to regulate communication and access, such as jails or prisons, any communication that surmounts the walls may be viewed by the institution or the public as a potential threat to the supposed ordering aegis of policing and penal practices. This may be the case even when the institution facilitates communication (through, for example, the availability of free mailing materials for people who are indigent) [2].

Whether or not readers view communications and publications by people in jails or prisons as necessarily resisting the boundary-setting effects of these institutions, the political nature of carceral practices reverberate through the ways that prisoner communications are regulated or made available to the general public. This has remained the case even as prisons and jails have been transformed through police militarization. For example, in 1930 San Quentin State Prison forbade the publication of prisoner manuscripts due to the possibility that the writers would receive compensation while incarcerated and that recognition for their publications was counterintuitive to the function of the prison as a site of punishment (De Ford, 1930). More recently, women in Wally Lamb’s prison writing class whose writings were published in Couldn’t Keep It To Myself were threatened with lawsuits by the carceral institution that totaled hundreds of thousand of dollars — the estimated cost of their daily incarceration — and had all of their available writings destroyed before public outcry and support from the PEN Foundation interrupted the punitive processes of prison censorship (Literature on Lockdown, 2013).

The lack of or sporadic access to information and unregulated communication is part of what Sexton refers to as the subjective and “micro-level realities of punishment” [3]. Micro-levels might involve restrictions on the number of pages that can be sent in a letter to a person in jail or prison, the size of images that people in jail or prison can receive, the subjective evaluation of suitable content by correctional officers, or the institutional ideologies that position certain types of information as dangerous to individuals or to the institution. Literacy practices have long been a site of the formation of publics (and counter publics) with literacy functioning as a shifting and protected form of white property (Corrigan, 2016; Vaught and Hernández, 2016). In an environment where literacy practices are made sparse through state power, letter writing becomes an important avenue around the dehumanizing effects of carceral power [4].

The following three examples of policies suffice to provide a broad stroke image of how information is a contested terrain within jails and prisons. Washoe County (in Nevada) only allows for inmate correspondence to occur through postcards (Washoe County Sheriff’s Office). Following a public and activist-led outcry on little publicized restrictions around sending books and similar materials to people in New York state prisons, New York entered an agreement with the prison-profiteering company JPay to provide people who are confined in the prisons with tablets (Kaufman, 2018). The state of Pennsylvania recently implemented a policy of scanning and storing all correspondence with people in state prisons, a procedure that is being challenged by the American Civil Liberties Union (Melamed, 2018a; Meyer, 2018). Washoe County and Pennsylvania are two of the systems examined further in this research.

In order to provide an introductory assessment of how differing levels of oversight (county, state, and federal) inform communication policies and access to information and communication technologies (ICTs), this research involves a review of policies and policy changes at each of these levels. The instances explored here reveal that there are significant differences between the frequency of shifts in county level policies and federal level policies. The research uncovered the mechanisms utilized by carceral institutions to describe their own changes to policy by utilizing digital records of policy Web sites from facilities at each level. Washoe County Detention Facility and the Pennsylvania state prison system are part of this research due to the inclusion of their policy Web sites in the Wayback Machine archive and the notable restrictions in their policies for how people who are incarcerated might receive information. The federal policies, likely prone to a more formalized system of review and implementation, are included here as a contrast to more local level changes. All policies reflect an impetus to restrict information and to maintain control of communication through processes of surveillance. As private vendors are introduced, the mechanisms involved in surveillance of communication become guarded as company secrets and are not subject to the same claims to transparency and public accountability that are supposed to be present in public carceral institutions.

People find ways to communicate and develop forms of resistance even in circumstances founded on hierarchical control and continuous surveillance. Lingel and Sinnreich (2016) document some forms of communication that constitutes counter-surveillance in their formulation of mass surveillance and incodification. Arford (2016) has elaborated how librarians in prisons navigate, subvert, and disrupt flows of power in their own work. Pigeonly, Flikshop, and InmateAid are app and computer interface-based services that facilitate increased communication, all created by people who were once incarcerated after their experiences with some of the third-party communications companies discussed in this article. These apps utilize local call routing and staff who physically print information provided in the app and to send it through postal mail (Carville, 2019). The following analysis serves as an illustration of how carceral institutions react and attempt to incorporate or subvert forms of communicative resistance, often heavily limiting the access that people who are incarcerated have to the increasingly dense information environment that structures day-to-day life in American society or utilizing the opportunity of increased communication to improve technological surveillance.



Methodological approaches to the Wayback Machine and Internet Archive

Keeping with Kahle’s original intentions for the Internet Archive to reveal “what any given community thought was important,” the current research evaluates publicly accessible online changes in communication policies and procedures as presented on the Web sites of government agencies [5]. The Wayback Machine interface into the Internet Archive records presents a unique opportunity for this type of analysis. Ben-David and Huurdeman (2014) trace the scholarly uses of the Internet Archive since the 2001 introduction of the Wayback Machine, which contained Web pages that had been crawled and archived since 1996, noting the use of the Wayback Machine in market research and research on the ecologies of Web linking. Referencing the use of the Wayback Machine in legal cases, Murphy, et al. (2007) tested the face and content validity of Wayback Machine records of commercial Web sites and found them to be valid records of Web site age, content, and frequency of updates. Wayback Machine access to the archives of government agencies has provided insight into how content, and public interaction, have changed over time, as is evident in Tokizane and Sugiura’s (2010) analysis of public relations content on Japanese Web sites. Tokizane and Suguira’s description of the process of tracking changes included the Aichi Prefectural Police Headquarters, setting a precedent for the current research. Noted changes on the Aichi Prefectural Police Headquarters page including the creation of new elements, including “high-tech crime” and “street crime,” being added. Such changes may have communicated to the general public an increased focus on these areas of policing [6].

There are some obvious limitations to utilizing the Wayback Machine for researching institutional policy changes. Content is sporadically gathered into the archive, and it is not an exhaustive representation of the Internet at any given time. Time stamps attributed to materials in the Internet Archive are not necessarily accurate portrayals of when changes in Web design or information provision took place (Ben-David and Huurdeman, 2014). For the purposes of this research, changes are noted as occurring sometime between instantiations of each Web page in the archive. Another issue with research conducted with the Wayback Machine concerns piecemeal archiving practices that stitch together Web page elements saved at disparate times. When moving between links in an archived page, researchers encounter a temporal shift between pages that were archived at separate times but are interlinked in the user interface (Ainsworth and Nelson, 2015). To avoid this temporal gap, the current research involves an analysis of changes that occur on specific Web addresses. Each relevant Web address was entered into the Wayback Machine search bar and changes were examined independent of other, interlinked, pages. A final notable limitation of the archive relates to recorded content — agencies and administrators have been able to request that their materials not land in the publicly accessible archive, or that specific materials are removed (Bates, 2002; Murphy, et al., 2007).

Each of the communication policy pages for the agencies included in this analysis was captured multiple times in the Internet Archive. The Washoe County page was captured 37 times between May of 2012 and January of 2019. The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections communication policy pages migrated information about mailing policies from the FAQ to an independent Web page address during a Web redesign. Captures of the pages, including the page for frequently asked questions, which included information about communications with people who were incarcerated, totaled to 53 instances. The information found on the Internet Archive is supplemented by policies established in 2011 and 2015, as well as a few articles published about the recent, controversial shift in mailing policies. The Federal Bureau of Prisons policy page was captured 147 separate instances in the Archive, with no apparent changes to content during that period.



Communication policy changes

The communication policies of American jails and prisons shape the information available to people who are incarcerated through the types and amounts of material allowed, the forms of access, and the expense of communication (especially in relation to access to ICTs). Despite the impact that these policies and procedures have on the lives and community networks of people who are incarcerated, few longitudinal studies of communication policies of carceral institutions exist. The studies that do exist emphasize the assumed function of the prison as either retributive or rehabilitative, and frame access to communications, visitor access, and other forms of contact between people who are incarcerated and the outside world in terms of maintaining the internal function of the prison and institutionally implemented ways to reduce recidivism. Published in criminology journals, these studies do not engage in an analysis of how power and resistance shape the severity of policies that limit communication. For instance, Schafer (1991) draws on surveys from the 1950s, 1970s, and 1980s to make a case for the value of visitations in supporting the nominally rehabilitative function of state prisons. Dickinson and Seaman (1994) and Hoffman, Dickinson, and Dunn (2007) grouped by mail correspondence, telephone calls, and visitation policies under the umbrella of communication policies. All studies relied on information from the staff (often high-ranking staff) at correctional facilities.

Hoffman, Dickinson, and Dunn’s survey results act as a predecessor for this research. In 2005, they found that there had been little change in the policies for physically mailed communications over the 34-year course of their research, with people who were incarcerated typically sending and receiving a total of about four letters a week (Hoffman, et al., 2007). The researchers found that carceral institutions had more often begun to share the cost of mailed communication (in the form of providing stamped envelopes or through providing indigent packs for people who did not have sufficient funds to afford stamps at commissary, where prices are heavily increased) and that two of the 163 facilities in their survey did not allow any by-mail communication. The 2005 survey results indicated that none of the carceral facilities surveyed allowed any form of access to the Internet or to e-mail. Few facilities revised their communications policies in the period between 1995 and 2005, and no research has examined the changing terrain of communication policies since this period. The current research begins an endeavor of tracing changes in communication policies in a period when private industries have maximized profits through the provision of ICT access in carceral facilities, potentially paving the way for more restrictive policies around physically mailed communications and opening the communications of people who are incarcerated to more stringent forms of surveillance through both ICTs and electronically enduring forms. The research is conducted through an introductory analysis of policies provided on the Web sites of the Washoe County Sheriff’s Office, the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, and the Federal Bureau of Prisons, with priority given to tracking changes in communications policies.



Washoe County Detention Facility

The Washoe County Detention Facility (located in Reno, Nevada) was selected for this research due to its restrictive policies related to by mail communications and the frequent shifts in the named companies that provide ICT access at this site. According to the “About” page of the Washoe County Sherriff’s Department Web site (n.d.), the facility holds up to 1,085 people per day and is “a model facility for jails in the United States” that is “routinely used as an example for other governmental agencies that are planning to construct new jails.” As of January 2019, the Washoe County Sherriff’s Department restricts all personal by mail communications to the size of a postcard (this policy does not apply to legal mail, which falls under a federal set of protections).

The “Inmate Mail and Phone Calls” page of the Washoe County Sheriff’s Office outlines the prohibited forms that a postcard might take as a list —

  • No postcards with glue, glitter or tape
  • No defaced or altered postcards
  • No plastics or wrapping on postcards
  • No postcards marked with paint, crayon or felt marker
  • No postcards with attached labels or stickers
  • No postcards with watermarks or stains
  • No postcards with any biohazards, including perfumes, lipstick or body fluids
  • No postcards depicting nudity, explicit content, weapons, or gang references
  • No oversized postcards (larger than 4.25 x 6 inches)
  • No homemade postcards
  • No Scratch and Sniff stamps

A review of the page on the Internet Archive reveals that this policy has been in effect since 1 February 2010 and has been listed on the Web site before it was first captured in May of 2012.

A total of six ICT providers appear in the archives of the Washoe County Sheriff’s Office policies regarding inmate mail and phone calls, with an average introduction of one new company in the years between 2013 and 2019. These companies are Access Corrections (utilized for e-mail services in January 2013), PCS Daily Dial (utilized for collect calls in January 2013), JailATM (utilized for e-mail from July 2014 through January 2019), Offender Connect (utilized for phone service in February 2015), Connect Network by GTL (utilized for phone services in July 2017), and Legacy Phone Systems (a product of Legacy Inmate Communications, utilized in January 2019).

There is nothing to indicate the impetus behind the frequent shift in service providers in the Internet Archives of the Washoe County Sheriff’s Office. A brief examination of the companies named above will assist readers in understanding the implications of these shifts in services in the lives of people who were detained in Washoe County. The Wayback Machine allows for the research to engage with the companies as they presented themselves at the time of their incorporation into the communication policies of the Facility.

In January of 2013, Access Corrections advertised itself as “the secure way to send funds and messages to your loved ones.” The main page of the site boasted its affiliation with the Alabama Department of Corrections, Oregon Department of Corrections, Oklahoma Department of Corrections, Kansas Department of Corrections, and GEO San Diego facility (a privately-owned, government contracted detention facility). Access Corrections was, and is, owned by the Keefe Group, a long-standing, multimillion-dollar industry that primarily accumulated capital through contracts with carceral institutions (Barker, 2015; Bloomberg, 2019). A search for the PCS Daily Dial Web site (, listed on the January 2013 version of the policy page, in the Internet Archive reveals that PCS Daily Dial transitioned to Offender Connect by September of 2013. Offender Connect was listed as the phone service provider for the Detention Facility in 2015. PCS Daily Dial was acquired by Global Tel*Link (GTL) in November of 2010 (GTL, 2019a), and the companies named on the Washoe County Web site from 2010 to January of 2019 reflect the relationships between these companies. Global Tel*Link is a large-scale player in the field of ICTs for carceral facilities. Its Web site currently boasts that it “provides service to 2,500 correctional facility customers in all 50 states plus DC & Puerto Rico” (GTL 2019b). The most recent iteration of telephone related services are provided by Legacy Inmate Services, a company that advertises its telephone features by emphasizing their “revolutionary recording and live monitoring utility” and the “increased revenue generation for your facility” that will accumulate through use of its service (Legacy Inmate Communications, 2019).

JailATM is listed on the communications policy website as the e-mail service provider from the July 2014 capture of the site to its present iteration. JailATM is a product of Tech Friends, Inc., an Arizona based company that markets numerous products for carceral institutions, including video visit software that “has the advantage of dramatically reducing visitors at the facility” (Tech Friends, Inc., 2018). The video visit software is marketed through a playacted version of a phone call that has, as indicated by comments on the video, brought to viewers’ minds the dehumanizing stereotypes of people who are incarcerated (TechFriends, Inc., 2012).

A review of the communication policies and companies named in the archive of the Washoe County Detention Facility revealed not only a turn to heightened surveillance and increasingly subtle surveillance technologies. The review also illustrated the increasingly standardized capabilities and policies that exist between local and state carceral institutions as they incorporate products designed by third-party vendors. In the case of Washoe County, the adoption of ICTs that function as surveillance agents occurred alongside a reduced amount of information that can be received in communication through the physical mail. An examination of policy changes undertaken by the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections reveals that institutions continue to see the physical mail as dangerous to the security of the facility, that ICTs are falsely positioned as a remedy to the biased or fallible surveillance capabilities of humans, and that new surveillance technologies to monitor information passage through the physical mail are being employed by carceral institutions in the United States.



Pennsylvania Department of Corrections

The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections holds over 50,000 people in various types of carceral institutions (Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Department of Corrections, 2019a). As of March 2016, the state system utilizes a for-pay e-mail service that is provided through GTL (described above). The “How to Email” page clearly states, “ALL emails inmates receive are subject to review for appropriate content” (Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Department of Corrections, 2019b). From October 2014 to March of 2016, all archived pages under “How to Email an Inmate” (the heading used prior to a site redesign) indicated that the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections was coordinating e-mail services through JPay. This image shows the February 2016 JPay rates for people sending messages to people inside of Pennsylvania state carceral facilities —


JPay message rates
Figure 1: JPay message rates (JPay, 2016).


JPay is owned by Securus Technologies, the self-proclaimed “largest inmate communications provider” that “serves more than 3,400 public safety, law enforcement and corrections agencies and over 1.2 million inmates across North America” (Securus Technologies, 2019a). Securus Technologies markets its emessaging service to correctional facilities by promoting its role in reducing the amount of physical mail received and by providing a means to have messages “stored electronically for investigation and analysis and ... easily accessed using intuitive sort and search tools” (Securus Technologies, 2019b).

Physical mail, the threat and resource drain mentioned in the JPay promotional materials, has become a primary focus of communications policy changes undertaken by the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections [7]. Prior to August of 2018, the physical mail policies for state carceral facilities were codified in a 2015 document named “Inmate Mail and Incoming Publications.” The procedures outlined prohibited types of mail, forms of address and misrepresentation, a ban on greeting card envelopes that are not white, and a prohibition against materials affixed to homemade art and of mailing labels. It included procedures for an application to correspond with other people who are incarcerated and a guarantee of no-cost access to mailing eight letters month (Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Department of Corrections, 2015). In regard to incoming mail, the policy stated “staff would not read incoming correspondence, privileged or otherwise, unless authorized to do so” [8]. Outgoing correspondence was given similar privacy, unless a designated person granted access to reviewing outgoing correspondence that was perceived to contain a potential threat to the functioning of the institution [9].

The policy was updated, with increasing surveillance measures put in place, in October of 2018. Following a statewide lockdown that the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections announced was “in response to numerous instances of staff and inmate exposure to suspicious substances requiring medical treatment,” personal communications through physical mail were halted and new procedures were put into place (Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Department of Corrections, 2018a, 2018b). Changes to policy were justified under the institutional position that personal and legal correspondence through the physical mail is one of the sites at which contraband enters the carceral institution (physical books are listed as another, even though the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, like many other institutions, had enacted a policy that books could only be mailed directly from publishers and distributors). Under this justification, the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections began to contract with Smart Communications, describing the new procedures for utilizing a third party entity to receive, scan, and transmit copies of incoming mail as

Smart Communications offers a program called MailGuard® which provides an off-site virtual mailroom that receives non-legal inmate postal mail on behalf of the correctional agency. That mail is then processed into a searchable electronic document which is then transmitted electronically to the correctional facility where it will be printed and delivered to the inmate by hand. MailGuard® creates a 100% contraband elimination for all non-legal mail. (Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Department of Corrections, 2019c)

Prior to this event, the major revisions to communications processes were informally incorporated onto a growing frequently asked questions list on the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections Web site (Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Department of Corrections, 2019d). A review of the 52 captures of the Frequently Asked Questions section of the Web site revealed that inquiries arose around the color of greeting card envelopes, whether or not it was possible to send trading cards to people who were incarcerated, and whether or not Amazon was an acceptable book distributor. The 2018 policy revisions present a marked change to these informal modes of communication. They reflect the incorporation of a third party purveyor to scan, sort, forward, process, and retain copies of physical mail sent to people in the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections.

A review of the Internet Archive revealed that Smart Communications, the company that acts as a third-party mail handler, has promoted their third-party mail service technologies for carceral institutions since they began to utilize their current Web address in the period between March of 2016 and October of 2017. They refer to the service as “Postal Mail Elimination” and describe its valuable features as filtering mail that has been scanned to an electronic file and creating “a searchable database” that “opens a whole new field of intelligence for your agency” (Smart Communications, 2018).

The legality of the 2018 changes in physical mail policies implemented by the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections is being contested at the time of this writing. The Pennsylvania American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is pushing back against legal mail policies that may comprise attorney client privileges (ACLU of Pennsylvania, 2018). Community members have commented on the cooling effect that the new procedures have on their communications with people who are incarcerated in Pennsylvania State prisons (Melamed, 2018b). Despite these contestations, the communication policy changes in the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections indicate a shift toward further surveillance of people who are already incarcerated and their correspondents.

Prisons have been quick to incorporate materials printed through communication app services into their own foreclosure of other forms of communication — for instance, the Lancaster County Prison in Pennsylvania now only accepts greeting cards posted through the Pigeonly service (Carville 2019). Services that facilitate communications are invaluable for people who are inside of jails and prisons — mail and other communication can be a route to maintaining a sense of self and future, and any communication is better than none. Still, the move from physical mail processes to the incorporation of the compulsory use of ICTs and the implementation of electronic scanning places physical communications as always potentially worthy of state suspicion and scrutiny. In the case of the State of Pennsylvania’s contracted services with Smart Communication, the introduction of scanning and archiving mailed communications strengthens a third-party company that financially benefits from systems of incarceration, and works to utilize state power to further limit the amount and types of information that people who are incarcerated can receive.



Federal Bureau of Prisons

The Federal Bureau of Prisons contains over 180,000 people in 122 public and private carceral facilities (U.S. Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Prisons, 2019a). The most recent policies related to incoming publications and to correspondence were established in 2011. The policy on incoming publications stated that materials can only be shipped from “the publisher, from a book club, or from a book store” [10]. The policy outlined a Warden’s role as the arbiter of whether or not materials constitute a threat to the carceral institution and prohibited the creation of a banned publication list. The Policy on Correspondence is open to interpretation and decisions of whether or not to limit communications access is dependent upon the security level of the facility, the “degree of sophistication of the inmates confined, and other variables” that are not named but are left to the facility Warden’s discretion [11]. The policy established that carceral institution staff is authorized to open and read mail that qualifies as general correspondence. Per the policy, “[i]ncoming general correspondence may be read as frequently as deemed necessary to maintain security or monitor a particular problem confronting an inmate” [12]. The policy authorized the facility Warden to restrict all general correspondence.

Electronic messaging in federal facilities is provided through TRULINCS, the Trust Fund Limited Communication System. According to the Bureau of Prisons Web site, people help in federal carceral institutions must be approved to access TRULINCS, and all correspondents give permission for correspondence. All correspondence through TRULINCS must be under 13,000 characters (U.S. Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Prisons, 2019b). Messages through the system are screened and use of the system requires an agreement to surveillance of communications. Privately owned facilities contracted through the Federal Bureau of Prisons do not have access to TRULINCS.

TRULINCS is operated under the umbrella of Advanced Technologies Group, LLC and is a product of the Keefe Group that is mentioned in the overview of company services in the Washoe County Detention Facility (Keefe Group, 2019). Advance Technologies Group advertises its products as an “Offender Management Suite,” a comprehensive data collection and access system that incorporates financial transactions, investigations, and communications into one cloud-based platform. The company is especially closed when describing its intelligence systems, stating simply that it “is designed to aid in detecting and preventing unlawful inmate activity” (Advance Technologies Group, 2014). Given the present review of the processes for communications surveillance at local, state, and federal levels, it is not difficult to assume that extensive amounts of data are being gathered and analyzed by the company, allowing it to create a data profile of individual people in carceral institutions while benefiting from the income produced by an increasingly informed algorithmic analysis and screening process.



Private prisons and other parties

Similar to Advance Technologies Group’s description of its intelligence systems, private state prisons and federal facilities, including those used to detain people who are undocumented, have been particularly mum on their own administrative practices. Exposés have been the primary means by which the public has come to hold any knowledge regarding privately owned carceral institutions, and have concerned the terrible conditions and dehumanizing practices within private institutions (see, for instance, Bauer, 2018; Carceral, 2006; Haberman, 2018). Bauer (2018) and Hallett (2006) each draw clear lines between the implementation of for-profit prisons and histories of slavery in the United States, showing that private prisons have functioned through racist and racial capitalist (Melamed, 2015) logics of control and exploitation. Hallett and Alexander (2010) trace the meteoric, racialized rise in incarceration to policing practices that targeted Black men (and women and Latinx men and women) as exploitable or disposable. Wagner (2009) outlines how all U.S. forms of modern policing and incarceration can be traced to systems of slavery, offering an historical account that illustrates the development of the current American police force as rooted in early slave patrols.

Bauer and Carceral (2018) give little attention to communication policies within private prisons in their first person accounts of private carceral institutions. Bauer, undercover as a prison guard, described the process of examining incoming mail for contraband. Carceral, in a memoir about his time incarcerated in a private prison, recounted that staff would frequently steal any money included in correspondence as part of their routine screening and that access to legal mail was a burden grudgingly borne by the institution (Carceral, 2006). Most complaints about these processes resulted in retributive discipline.

Hallett’s investigation of private carceral institutions outlined the marked difference between private and public institutions as the private institution’s move to position people who were incarcerated as “engines of private investment and utilized for local economic development” [13]. This difference between the types of institutions is muddied by “the private sector connections to both public and private prison systems ... including labor contracts with corporations like IBM, MCI, Motorola, TWA, Victoria’s Secret, Compaq computers, and many others” [14]. Even before Hoffman, Dickinson, and Dunn’s 2005 survey found that no institutions provided e-mail communications or Internet access, high tech companies had found a way to extract capital from the labor of people inside of carceral institutions.

The addition of privately operated ICTs is one of the ways that public prisons disturb the dissimilarity between public and private carceral institutions described by Hallett [15]. The ICT providers outlined in this research, like private prison companies, are not transparent to the public about the functioning of their software or its implementation. Beyond this, through data aggregation, analysis, and algorithmic refinement that occurs after implementation in the carceral institution, these companies again position people who are incarcerated as “engines of private investment” [16]. The data produced through the scanning, sorting, and screening of communications between people who are incarcerated and their communities is an extractive process of private value accumulation, leading to continuously improved tools for analysis and, most likely, increasingly desirable contracts for the companies involved.

At play in the incorporation of privately-owned data-gathering and surveillance ICTs into the daily functioning of carceral institutions is the increasingly technologized management of a social order that privileges a few through the exclusion and increased surveillance of many. As Foucault famously noted, the similarities between carceral institutions, schools, hospitals, and more belies a truth in their founding and their function [17]. Beyond their original purpose, these institutions and their contemporaries have become increasingly interlinked through their use of surveillance technologies, algorithms to determine risk or viability to current social and political structures, and through record sharing practices often facilitated by government agencies (Eubanks and Silverman, 2018; Zuboff, 2019). It is important to note here that technologies themselves do not serve a neutral function that interrupts communication flows allowed because of the potentially fallible individuals who were previously tasked with communications surveillance. Technologies carry the racialized ideations held by those in power at the time of their creation and of their actual creators, replicating bias throughout the system (Noble, 2018; Wang, 2017) and potentially flagging communications that pose no actual risk, which may lead to additional years in prison for people viewed as partaking in institutionally disruptive forms of communication [18]. Through the implementation of ICTs and other quotidian and intimate surveillance technologies, state imposed rightlessness and devaluation twines with the ongoing function of surveillance as a form of risk-assessment for the continuous ordering of daily life and of management of “tainted citizens” [19]. Where valued and value-producing citizens are included within terrains of surveillance that lead to their continued (idea of) safety and well-being, others — those devalued by a racialized capitalist society (Melamed, 2015) — are excluded from safety and categorized by risk (Rose, 2000). “The logics of risk inescapably locate the careers and identities of such tainted citizens within a regime of surveillance which actually constitutes them all as actually potentially ‘risky’ individuals. The incompleteness, fragmentation and failure of risk assessment and risk management is no threat to such logics, merely a perceptual incitement for the incessant improvement of systems, generation of more knowledge, invention of more techniques, all driven by the technological imperative to tame uncertainty and master hazard” where hazard qualifies as any threat to the imposed ordering logic [20]. Rose’s statements on risk can be read through Wang’s (2017) exploration of how languages of risk are racially coded. Privately-owned ICTs reveal a further aegis of these logics — that of capital accrual through algorithms increasingly trained to predict and shape behavior by processing the massive amounts of data contained in e-mail messages, letters, and other forms of communication sent to and by people inside of jails and prisons.

As the review of racist histories of policing and incarceration that have manifested in current practices of public and private incarceration reveal, the use of surveillance technologies by carceral institutions exposes a racialized element of surveillance capitalism (Zuboff, 2019). Under Zuboff’s definition, surveillance capitalism fits with Rose’s understandings of risk management and technological intercession as forces for risk assessment and population control (Zuboff [2019] refers to this as “a new global architecture of behavioral modification” that leads to exploitable predictive models of behavior). The honing of data analysis on the communications of people who are held by the state, primarily people of color, people who are poor, and transgender and gender non-conforming people, generates increased profits and market standing for the companies who conduct this analysis.




Local, state, and federal communications policies of carceral institutions have not been subject to an examination of how the incorporation of third-party ICTs change potential communication practices and increase the frequency of undue surveillance of communications between people who are incarcerated and their friends, families, and communities. The corporate landscape of third-party ICTs is shared at all levels of incarceration examined here, with local, state, and federal facilities overlapping in their affiliations with companies that proliferate surveillance through analysis of digital and digitized communications. An increase in digital surveillance capabilities may be used by carceral institutions to internally justify a decrease the amount of information that can be sent or received by people who are incarcerated. This may take place through direct limitation on amount of content, as in Washoe County, or through the incorporation of third-party recipients who digitize and retain physical correspondence, as in the Pennsylvania state prisons.

There is limited research on how the communications policies of carceral institutions have changed over time, and no research has focused on the changes brought about by the incorporation of third-party ICTs. In order to create a longitudinal portrait of changes in how carceral institutions convey their communications policy, this research utilized the Wayback Machine as an access point to the Internet Archive. Records in the Internet Archive provide a means for looking through policy changes and changes in contracts, as well as the shifting corporate terrain of companies that profit from the expense of electronic communications in carceral institutions.

This research begins to scratch the surface of how ICTs have shaped the landscape of communications for people who are incarcerated, drawing from pronounced examples to illustrate that many carceral institutions are intermeshed through the introduction of ICTs and for-profit endeavors. Future research can build from this foundation to examine a larger scale of institutions, potentially identifying patterns in how the introduction of ICTs in carceral institutions related to communications policies around physical mail and publications. In order to do this, it will have to rely on the content of the Internet Archive. One simple way to ensure that the policies and informally instituted practices of government bodies responsible for carceral institutions that are available for analysis is to add their Web pages to the Internet Archive.

This article opened with an examination of how carceral institutions and, by extension, police and judicial systems, have been fascinated by the letter writing activities of people who are incarcerated, even in cases where the contents of letters do not obviously connect with a perceived “threat” to these institutions. The private lives, thoughts, and feelings of people who are incarcerated or viewed as potentially criminal — people of color, poor people, and LGBTQ people — are of great interest to a carceral system that seeps into the everyday lives of individuals and communities. Communication has provided the means to maintain resistance, has been an organizing medium for civil rights and claims to humanity, and has been a tool utilized by incarcerated people to assert their rights. If Foucault is correct that the structuring impetus behind prisons is similar to that of other institutions, and their proliferations, then a review of the surveillance practices of the communications between people who are incarcerated and their communities reveals a heavily racialized dimension of surveillance capitalism’s structuring logic as “a new economic order that claims human experience as free raw material for hidden commercial practices of extraction, prediction, and sales” (Zuboff, 2019). New technologies and processes, such as Pigeonly, Flikshop, and InmateAid create room for increased community connection and address a very immediate need for a feeling of place outside of the carceral walls (Carville, 2018), but these are always possibly subject to the next iteration of communications policies. Evidence suggests that new tools and methods will be developed to increase information and access as soon as the old ones are overcome, and that no system of surveillance is complete. Consider, for examples, the national prison strikes of 2016 and 2018, the moments of redirected flows of power within carceral institutions evidenced in uprisings and hunger strikes, and the use of radio stations to broadcast messages between people who are incarcerated and their communities (The Prison in Twelve Landscapes, 2016). These have required information sharing and coordination with people outside of the carceral institution in order to raise public awareness of the actions of people who are incarcerated.

However incomplete surveillance may be, the racialized extraction of value that takes place through these surveillance technologies replicates forms of extraction that took place under slavery and that have been condoned by the state. The shifts in communications policies examined here represent the state’s power to limit, screen, and archive information as a form of state-enforced oppression, a power that holds huge implications for an increasingly digitized world, but they also may indicate a something larger and more insidious. The companies outlined here have grown and consolidated over time, have maintained secrecy around how they monitor and assess communications, and have largely been uncontested in their accumulation of information (both shared by people engaging in communication and by government agencies that provide information on what types of communication are deemed suspicious). They represent a move toward a dispersed, digital, and constantly improving system of control that is informed by the everyday actions of those who, by choice or force, engage it. From predictive policing to assessing viability for tiers of healthcare and treatment, this dispersed system continues to mark some for inclusion into safety and others as risky, right-less, or worse. End of article


About the author

Jeanie Austin is a librarian with San Francisco Public Library’s Jail & Reentry Services program. Their interests include the provision of library services to people held in state custody and the gendered, racialized, and ability-centric political and social systems that surround this work. Jeanie received their Ph.D. in library and information science from the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign.
E-mail: Jeanie [dot] l [dot] austin [at] gmail [dot] com



1. Corrigan, 2016, p. 8.

2. Ear Hustle, a podcast that covers the intricacies of prison life in San Quentin State Prison (California) and has over 10 million listeners proves this example. San Quentin State Prison has been hailed for the number of programs it provides to people inside, but has also recently been the site of agitation for better conditions, including hunger strikes (Harkinson and Caldwell, 2013). Ear Hustle has tackled issues of prison life that are often obscured, has humanized people inside of prisons to its listeners, and has created a model for incorporating technology into prison programming. This has all, as is observed toward the end of episodes and on the Web page for the podcast, occurred under the approval of the carceral institution, as do all secondary interviews with people involved with the podcast (Ear Hustle, n.d.; Ganeva, 2017; Gilchrist, 2018).

3. Sexton, 2015, p. 116.

4. Vaught and Hernández, 2016, p. 463.

5. Kahle in Ben-David and Huurdeman, 2014, p. 95.

6. Tokizane and Suguira, 2010, p. 90.

7. Note that, in addition to the cost for access, people who send funds to people inside for ICT access, including to “purchase certain communication and media-related products (such as stamps for e-mail and VideoGram’s, music, eBooks, games, news and videos, if such products are available at the inmate’s facility)” must pay a service fee in addition to the funds sent through JPay and converted to JPay Credits (JPay, 2019a). This shift in cost for communication and information access from the state to individuals and their communities is one of the hallmarks of the neoliberal turn (Wagner/Center for Public Integrity, 2014). Given that state contracts with ICT vendors, including JPay, often foreclose communications through other channels, people inside and those individuals with whom they communicate are compulsorily obligated to terms of agreements that may include, as in the case of JPay, the monitoring of content by the carceral facility or by the ICT company (JPay, 2019b).

8. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Department of Corrections, 2015, p. 2–1.

9. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Department of Corrections, 2015, p. 2–5.

10. U.S. Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Prisons, 2011a, p. 2.

11. U.S. Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Prisons, 2011b, p. 4.

12. U.S. Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Prisons, 2011b, p. 8.

13. Hallett, 2006, p. 18.

14. Hallett, 2006, p. 65.

15. ICT companies in carceral institutions have disputed that they held similarities to privately-run prisons. Take for instance, a blog post from 2012 in which JPay presents itself as a third (or intermediary option) in the debate around public– and privately–owned prisons (JPay, 2012). JPay’s argument for its services hinges on the failure of the institutions, framing the necessity of third-party ICTs as necessitated by, “the inefficiency of correctional systems.” In JPay’s corporate logic, this inefficiency is what “drives the drumbeat for privatization. And this inefficiency can be countered with forward-thinking policies and service offerings on the part of correctional agencies.” In its own conception, JPay is the forward-thinking policy being advocated.

16. Hallett, 2006, p. 18.

17. Foucault, 1995, p. 228.

18. Despite their power to regulate, punish, and (presumably) “predict”, the technologies implemented by ICTs are not infallible or inviolable. An Associated Press release from 2018 illustrated this point, opening with the statement that “Idaho prison officials say 364 inmates exploited vulnerable software in the JPay tablets they use for email, music and games to collectively transfer nearly a quarter million dollars into their own accounts” (Boone, 2018).

19. Cacho, 2012; Rose, 2000, p. 333.

20. Rose, 2000, p. 333.



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Editorial history

Received 11 February 2019; revised 14 February 2019; revised 17 February 2019; accepted 18 February 2019.

Copyright © 2019, Jeanie Austin. All Rights Reserved.

Mechanisms of communicative control (and resistance): Carceral incorporations of ICT and communication policies for physical mail
by Jeanie Austin.
First Monday, Volume 24, Number 3 - 4 March 2019

A Great Cities Initiative of the University of Illinois at Chicago University Library.

© First Monday, 1995-2019. ISSN 1396-0466.