Return To Sender; Postcard-Only Policies

For prisons or jails to only allow prisoners to receive postcards is just another way to sever ties to outside support systems and to INCREASE the odds that a prisoner will re-offend. It also…conveniently enough – prevents word and documentation of abuses from ever reaching the outside world. It is not good and there is NO justifiable reason for such a policy to exist, period!

February 7, 2012
Prison Policy Initiative
Leah Sakala
(413) 527-0845

Easthampton, MA — Local jails should think twice before cutting off letters from home, says the research think tank Prison Policy Initiative in a new report, “Return to Sender: Postcard-only Mail Policies in Jail.”

The report argues that the growing jail trend to ban letters and restrict mail to only postcards deters communication that is essential for keeping people from reoffending after release. “Letters are one of the three main ways that people in jails maintain family ties. Phone calls are outrageously expensive, and limited visiting hours often make letters the only viable way to stay in touch,” said Leah Sakala, the report’s author and a policy analyst at the Prison Policy Initiative. “The social science research is clear — people in jail need to maintain strong outside ties to keep from coming right back after they’re released.”

Sheriffs often claim that restricting incoming and outgoing mail to postcards will reduce the time it takes to screen for contraband, but, Sakala said, “the public must insist that sheriffs balance vague claims of cost savings against the very expensive risk that individuals whose community ties have been jeopardized by the postcard-only policies will return to jail.”

The report demonstrates, often with examples from successful lawsuits, why postcards are inadequate substitutes for letters. Not only does communication via postcard cost 34 times as much as via letter, but banning envelopes forces people to choose between exposing personal information to anyone who sees the postcard or not communicating at all. “Requiring family members who want to stay in touch to pay extra and expose private information ensures that they are punished, too,” Sakala explained. “The security practices of all state and federal prisons show that correctional facilities can effectively screen mail without resorting to postcard-only policies.”

The report also finds that postcard-only mail rules contradict the best practices outlined by major professional organizations, including the American Correctional Association and the American Jail Association.

The postcard-only policy trend began five years ago with controversial Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio, and caught on at first among administrators of small county jails. Today, dozens of jails in at least 13 states have instituted postcard-only policies. Most recently, the San Diego County Jail embraced the policy in September, and the Sacramento County Jail is set to enforce its own version on February 10. Also last fall, a prison in New Mexico was poised to be the first state prison to implement a postcard-only restriction, but at the last minute the state Department of Corrections intervened and indefinitely postponed the policy.

A federal trial is currently underway in Oregon to determine if the Columbia County Jail’s postcard-only policy violates the free speech rights of incarcerated people and those who correspond with them. While the trial is ongoing, the judge has already issued a preliminary injunction against the jail’s postcard-only policy.

The report calls for jails with postcard-only policies to rescind them, and calls on state and federal agencies to refuse to contract with facilities that have postcard-only policies.

Excerpt from the report,


Over the past five years, dozens of local jails across the country have followed a harmful new policy trend: mandating that all personal written correspondence to or from jail take place via postcard. The postcard-only trend began in 2007, when controversial Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio instituted a ban on any incoming non-legal mail except for postcards.[1] Since then, sheriffs from jails in at least 13 states around the country—Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Kansas, Michigan, Missouri, Oregon, Tennessee, Utah, and Washington—have followed suit by implementing their own postcard-only restrictions on incoming and outgoing mail, radically restricting incarcerated people’s ability to communicate with the outside world. Although several jails that implemented postcard-only policies have since rescinded or relaxed their regulations in response to public pressure and litigation, dozens of postcard-only policies still stand, and more are introduced each year.

Postcard-only mail policies are ostensibly crafted to save funds by streamlining the mail screening process and limiting opportunities to introduce contraband into correctional facilities. In practice, they have the perverse effect of deterring written communication between incarcerated people and their communities,[2]straining connections that are essential for both successful reintegration and for preventing reoffending. Social science research has repeatedly documented the significant social and economic value of preserving the community and family support systems that keep formerly incarcerated people from returning to jail. Postcard-only policies run contrary to prevailing correctional standards and best practices, and the vast majority of jail facilities around the country, as well as all other kinds of detention facilities, successfully implement mail security measures without imposing dramatic postcard-only restrictions.

Additionally, postcard-only jail mail policies place a significant burden on the disproportionately black and low-income family members and communities of people incarcerated in jails. Limited visiting hours, exorbitant jail phone rates, and long distances make written communication the only viable way for many families and community members to stay in touch with people in jail. Postcards are not a sufficient substitute for letters because they significantly restrict expression and communication, and they force people to choose between inappropriately exposing personal information and not communicating at all. Postcards are also far less economically efficient than letters, and each word written on a postcard is about 34 times as expensive as a word written on paper and mailed in an envelope.[3] Mandating that all written communication take place within the limited confines of individual postcards dramatically reduces friends’ and family members’ ability to communicate with a loved one behind bars.

Jails have very little to gain from postcard-only mail rules, and society has a lot to lose from policies that stifle written communication between incarcerated people and their communities.

In short, jails have very little to gain from postcard-only mail rules, and society has a lot to lose from policies that stifle written communication between incarcerated people and their communities.

This report recommends that:

  1. All jails should allow communication via letter and envelope.
  2. State regulatory agencies that are responsible for jail oversight should prohibit postcard-only mail policies.
  3. Professional correctional associations should refuse to accredit correctional facilities with postcard-only mail policies.
  4. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement and state departments of corrections that contract with local jails for additional cell space should refuse to contract with facilities that enforce postcard-only mail restrictions.

The report is available at

About Wyld Chyld

Artist, activist.
This entry was posted in Abuse, Postcards Only, prison policy initiative, Sensory Deprivation and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Return To Sender; Postcard-Only Policies

  1. Steve McFarland says:

    Reblogged this on Carpenter's Cabin.

  2. Now this some b.s. but just another way to keep recidivism rate high.

    • MisBehaved Woman says:

      Makes it easier on the mail room staff too I’m sure. Had this policy been in place when we were trying to help the solitary unit in UT, we’d have gotten NOWHERE…it took reams of paper for the prisoners to get all that shit out to us…to have done it on postcards?? Not possible, period. This idea has been getting tossed around for a good 3 yrs now; gotta stop it before it spreads any further…

  3. moorbey says:

    Reblogged this on Moorbey'z Blog.

  4. dsfu,jcefpk9tjveosemtig809jc88zinoudvxcjkvxdfjksdfjklsjkldf1111111111111111!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!cs.cfkjmbfogjv,c;prfjvniodtmifjw,[0rucfnvnvoimguhvjcamaop4fnr79gyvmifdkx,[moctvghmfpodifj!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!@#$%%^&^%$#@!$^*((&^$#!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    Stupid is indescriblable!
    The whole thing this is unacceptable.
    Not just this.
    The whole thing.
    People matter. No matter what. The dinosaurs are laughing at us and our stupid prison system. We can’t think of a better system?
    Maybe all our geniouses, all our help are in solitary confinement somewere.
    WE need help.

    • MisBehaved Woman says:

      I find that I have to clamp down tightly on my fingers to keep from actually typing out the long strings of obscenities that fly through my head when I catch wind of idiot ideas such as this so I could totally read your 1st statement up there…sad, huh?

      There are very, very few people in prison who could actually be considered ‘beyond redemption’ and I bet we could house them all together in one small location if we absolutely had to separate them in order to protect society. Beyond that? I think we could use a serious dose of Restorative Justice…by the community, of the community and for the community directly affected by a criminal act or action…such as theft or assault. All of this ‘one size fits all’ and federal mandates of sentencing has GOT to be tossed out if we are ever truly going to begin to reduce actual crimes. We cannot mend something broken by breaking it even further into pieces which is about all our current system ever ends up doing.

      We DO need help – but the only hope or help I see is if we take it upon ourselves to help one another and stop waiting for the system that created this mess to find a way to fix it!!!

      • You got the right idea.
        On it!
        No longer waiting around.
        Restorative justice, yes.
        Yes, yes and yes.
        No that we are knowing and sharing tipping point comes soon.
        I’m so eager!
        An entrepreneur, business owner who teaches soon guys how to start run and be successful in their own businesses when they get out told my class that we all sucked compared to those amazing guys in prison who he teaches the same stuff.
        Like the late Aaron, all the best guys who don’t fit into the box with leadership skills, a sense of business, independence, risk taking smarts and adventure are were they can’t do society any good. Entrepreneurs start their own businesses because they can’t do anything else. They are not capable of working for someone else. To creative and untamable. Without them the rest of us resemble sheep when it comes to jobs. Lucky Steve Jobs escaped the funnel to prison.


  5. PS

    The feeling of prisons exsisting makes me feel dirty. The prison idea is a dirty gross nasty habit. Wretched.

    Way worse than the people in it. For people there is alway love and hope and patience. Perhaps even restraint, I don’t know. Maybe some could use a little confinement for being iniciated into society safly. Yet is is a process and an iniciation, something sacred to integrate, not punish and degrade.
    Nope I don’t have answers. One exsists-many exsist.
    So I am imagining this world without prisons starting with me, the gold metal winner for most prisoners in the world.
    A world that cares for us who cry out for help through violence etc.

Comments are closed.