Returned Christmas cards anger prison activists, inmates’ loved ones |
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Megan Guza
This box, sent from the local chapter of the Coalition Against Death by Incarceration, contains about 500 Christmas cards meant for inmates from Allegheny County serving life sentences across the state. Activists gathered outside of Gov. Tom Wolf’s Downtown Pittsburgh on Monday, Jan. 29, 2019, demanding an apology for what they said is the unfair treatment of their letters.

Local activists demanded an apology from Gov. Tom Wolf and the state Department of Corrections on Monday, alleging the department and its mail handler unfairly kept 500 Christmas cards from prison inmates.

The activists are part of the Western Pennsylvania chapter of the Coalition to Abolish Death by Incarceration, or CADBI. The group put together a package of Christmas cards for each of the 500 or so individuals from Allegheny County who are serving life sentences without parole.

The issue, said CADBI member Ronna Davis, is that the group was previously told their cards would be delivered so long as they followed policy: The cards could be sent as a package so long as each card had to be individually wrapped and addressed to a specific inmate.

The Department of Corrections changed its mail policy last year after a number of guards across the state said they were sickened by an unknown substance, which prompted a lockdown at all DOC facilities.

Officials theorized that the reactions stemmed from contact with drugs that were being smuggled into the prisons through letters saturated with drug liquids and dried.

Mail for Pennsylvania inmates now must be sent to Smart Communications, a company in St. Petersburg, Fla., where it is opened, scanned and sent electronically to the proper Pennsylvania prison facility.

“Prior to even getting the volunteers to bring the cards in, putting our personal message in, doing all the footwork, we received approval from Smart Communications,” said Davis, of the Hill District. “They said that we can send it in as long as we follow the policy they sent us. We followed everything to the letter, and our loved ones still did not receive their mail.”

The box of individually addressed cards was returned unopened, she said.

Bret Grote, legal director for the Abolitionist Law Center, said there was no reason for the package of cards to be denied. He said a department official told them sending the cards in a package would be fine. After the box was sent back, he said, the same official said Smart Communications must have changed the policy without the DOC’s knowledge.

Department of Corrections officials did not immediately return a request for comment.

Activists had five demands for the governor and the DOC: Deliver the cards; apologize to the inmates who missed out on the cards; reimburse the group for the time and expense of sending the cards; end the contract with Smart Communications; and reinstate the previous mail policy.

“Our loved ones cannot receive their Christmas cards. This is not a joke,” said Cynthia Thomas. “They don’t have much to look forward to, but they look forward to their mail. A Christmas card could do a lot for an inmate on Christmas Day.”

Megan Guza is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Megan at 412-380-8519, [email protected] or via Twitter @meganguzaTrib.

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