Tell Virginia Not to Shred Family Photos

Virginia Department of Corrections

Correspondence written by the loved ones of Virginia prisoners will be shredded after being opened and copied by prison staff.  The new policy takes hold April 17th, when half of all Virginia Department of Corrections facilities will begin destroying incoming prisoner mail items like letters, pictures, cards and newspaper clippings---and providing prisoners with photocopies of them.

The Department of Corrections argues it needs the procedure to stem the flow of contraband substances, and its absurd parameters are outlined in a video that might as well be satire.

Where to begin? The procedure is ill-conceived, and likely to further alienate already disrupted families while creating extra work for corrections staff.  Most prisons are resource strained and employees are better used in the service of more vital issues like safety, education and rehabilitation.

The procedure erects a pointless barrier between prisoners and their families despite research that says prisoners maintaining close contact with their family members improves post-release outcomes and lowers recidivism rates. “The central finding of this research is the strong and consistent positive relationship that exists between parole success and maintaining strong family ties while in prison,” Explorations in Inmate-Family Relationships, a 1972 study says.

There’s also the matter of the procedure’s terrible logistics. Using photocopying technology to reproduce pictures offers a technical problem that’s likewise a built-in bias. Using a color palate based on 1800 century norms, photocopiers are bad at picking up dark skin tones and tend to blotch out photos of people of color.

Added to that are some significant health concerns for correction staff spending long hours with photocopiers that emit selenium and ozone---byproducts of heated toner---all to wage war on the letters and photos that help prisoners stay connected to their families and communities, and successfully return home.

Looking at Shirley, the Ultimate Norm: Colour Balance, Image Technologies, and Cognitive Equity.” Canadian Journal of Communication. 2009.

"Photocopier and Laser Printer Hazards" (PDF). London Hazards Centre. 2002. Retrieved 2009-11-20.

"Health and Safety Representatives' Handbook" (PDF). [National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers (NASUWT)]. July 27, 2009. Retrieved April 30, 2011

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Richmond, VA

To: Virginia Department of Corrections
From: [Your Name]

Dear Virginia Department of Corrections,

I am writing to demand that you cease and reevaluate your plan to begin shredding family photos and providing only photocopies of letters to prisoners. There is too much evidence pointing to the positive impact of strong family connections, and prison staff time could be used more effectively. Besides, a recent study showed that staff are the leading cause of contraband inside our nation’s prisons.

As you address this issue, we ask for a transparent, honest, and fair process that includes all stakeholders. In the interest of transparency, there should be a public hearing that includes testimony from the Virginia Department of Corrections and prisoner families, as well as members of the legal profession and prisoner service providers.

You have the fate of thousands of prisoner families and their connections in your hands, and I’m calling on you to do the right thing.