News Spotlight: Mail Services Workgroup Summary
Published August 11, 2022
The Department of Corrections (DOC) knows that social connections maintained during incarceration provide a valuable reentry resource, and that families can be an important source of housing, emotional support, financial resource, and overall stability during their time of incarceration. Much of this support is maintained through the departments’ mail services operations and successful delivery of such mail and the department values this resource and the ability to provide this service to the incarcerated population and their loved ones.
In April of 2021, the department’s correctional manager that oversees agency mailroom operations was invited by the Office of Corrections Ombuds (OCO) to attend a public virtual meeting to hear concerns and answer questions posed by loved ones of the incarcerated population related to the mail services that the agency was providing.
This invitation was welcomed by the department and the insightful comments and questions were invaluable. The department’s correctional manager agreed to attend additional virtual meetings which ultimately led to a formalized workgroup consisting of internal and external stakeholders, to include OCO staff, and participants from family councils across the state with a purpose of reviewing the mail services operations and making systemic improvements to further the ability for the incarcerated population to receive support from their loved ones.
Present Program Accomplishments
The department held a two-day workshop with internal stakeholders completing the first half revision of DOC 450.100 Mail for Individuals in Prison. With a thorough review and discussion, the workgroup identified several areas of improvement and recommended implementation of new practices currently underway. The statewide mail specialist is working through the second half of the policy to finalize this review. The department is striving to have Policy 450.100 approved and revised by the end of the year 2022.
Included in the revision and/or immediate updates:
- Mailroom staff will make a reasonable effort to search or find the intended recipient for incoming mail that may not be addressed correctly.
- Mailroom staff will not open and reject outgoing curio packages. Instead, it will be returned to the individual with instructions for correction.
- Outgoing mail that is deemed to be unauthorized, but not necessarily a threat, will be returned to the individual for correction prior to sending.
- Business names are allowed and can be used in place of the sender’s first and last name on a return address, this includes for JPay.
- Policy requires date-stamping the outermost page of all incoming mail when received, including publications.
- The department is currently working to update the public web site that will provide more clarity about the reasons mail may be rejected as a resource for external stakeholders. The department has removed “mail in a foreign language” as a rejection reason in the JPay system. This will ensure that people who communicate with loved ones in languages other than English are able to use their preferred language.
- Staff will take measures to prevent damaging mail when opening for inspection, including avoiding unnecessary markings.
- Markings with the intention of identifying the individuals’ DOC number or housing assignment, and/or authorized stamped messages, are acceptable. If mail is delivered damaged, or if staff unintentionally damage the mail, the individual will receive appropriate notification.
Photocopying of Mail
In an effort to reduce safety and security concerns and support the timely processing of mail, a memo was sent out by Assistant Secretary Obenland, in February 2022, giving mailroom staff authorization to photocopy correspondence (not individual photos, greeting cards or publications). Staff will deliver to the individual if the correspondence would have otherwise been rejected for substances or material on the correspondence itself (stickers, color crayon drawings, unknown stains, etc.). The allowance to photocopy envelopes was placed into policy several years ago. Each facility will be receiving desktop scanners to support this change and provide resources to staff to implement effectively. DOC employees, contractors, or volunteers are strictly prohibited from using mail rejections as a form of retaliation against individuals and their correspondents.
The departments correctional manager has created a trial auditing tool that has been utilized on two occurrences thus far. This tool will provide the Headquarters program administrator and facility Superintendents the ability to review compliance reports and take swift action to initiative corrective action where necessary.
A rejection tracker has been incorporated into the Incarcerated Individual Mail SharePoint site where the facilities enter all mail rejections initiated. These entries contain information such as: reason for rejection, name of staff rejecting, whether the rejection was appealed to facility and/or HQ, the results of the appeal, and the ultimate disposition of the item.
Work in Progress
The department is currently working on DOC 450.100 revisions which include:
- The department will review security standards for outgoing mail and, separately, incoming mail to ensure that they are up-to-date and clearly stated and these differences are clearly identified in policy and guidelines.
- Mail services staff will revise policies and procedures to provide incarcerated individuals the opportunity to correct non-compliant aspects of their outgoing mail, provided it does not pose a safety or security threat, rather than immediately confiscating the letter, card, or package. When mailroom staff have rejected a piece of outgoing mail, it will be returned to the incarcerated sender with the reason for the rejection noted. The sender will then have the opportunity to correct the problem. In the case of a letter or card being included in a curio mailout, the package will be returned to the individual and will be allowed to be mailed out in accordance with DOC policy and procedure.
- Language will be added to DOC 450.100 clarifying that items such as stickers or colorings added to correspondence (a letter or card, including envelope) will not be automatic grounds for rejection. In situations in which an item such as a sticker or coloring has been added to the correspondence, the item will be photocopied and the copies will be forwarded to the incarcerated individual.
- The agency’s correctional manager will conduct a review of the current mail rejection reasons for both hard copy and, has separately, completed a review for JPay messages which resulted in a much edited list of rejection words. DOC also agreed to implement regular reviews of technology flagged words to ensure ongoing relevance and need for inclusion on list.
- Mail rejection appeal timelines for facilities and headquarters will be added to the next revision of DOC 450.100 to provide a clearer picture of how long the process can take. It is possible that the process for reviewing an appeal of a mail rejection can take at least 30-45 days to be completed, and having this in policy provides that for context.
- The DOC agreed to create a resource for external persons that provides more clarity about the reasons mail may be rejected.
- Policy language will be changed to give the Correctional Manager 20 business days to complete reviews on appeals (mail, publication and JPay).
- The department mail specialists are working to create a monthly data reporting for each facility’s mailroom performance. The data will include rates of rejection by mail staff, types of rejections, rates of appeals, etc. DOC will require these facility mailroom monthly reports in the next revision of DOC 450.100.
- The DOC agreed to clarify in policy that publications containing images will not be counted as photographs.
- The mail services team has modified policy language to ensure consistency in terminology. DOC will use a general term such as “eMessage service provider” throughout the policy to ensure accuracy regardless of vendor contract status. Similarly, DOC will use the term “Correctional Manager” throughout the policy.
- The mail services team has modified Section IV.A.2 to allow the name of a registered business or organization to stand in for an individual first and last name on a return address. The DOC reports already sending directives on this matter to all mailroom staff.
- New mailroom stamps indicating that a person is “temporarily (or ‘currently’) unable to accept (legal) mail” rather than returning it stamped “Incarcerated Individual Unable to Accept Mail.” This change is reflected in policy.
- Department staff will retain confidentiality of mail/eMessages when processing mail for incarcerated individuals, unless the material is needed for administrative purposes. This language will be included in the policy revision, staff training, and reviewed during audits.
The department has started a PowerPoint training for mailroom staff and sergeants and are working to implement this training by the end of calendar year 2022. To create transparency and provide oversight, the department is producing a weekly report which reflects the timelines that incoming and outgoing messages are being processed in accordance with agency expectation. Additionally, the department is currently sorting through mail rejection reasons to determine what rejection reasons should be eliminated and which reasons should be used only specifically for incoming, outgoing, or JPay messaging.
Sexually Explicit Definitions
The department is currently working on completing a survey to all states requesting their definition of the term “sexuality explicit” with regards to mail. The department is also working on revising the dress code requirements for video grams. Currently, customers must be clothed per visit room regulations and video grams are being rejected for reasons that seem to be unfit for video gram purposes outside of the visit room. The goal of this survey is to be able to address situations like these scenarios with a message of understanding and compromise.
Once the department receives the survey results regarding the definition of “sexually explicit”, the department plans to organize a workgroup of internal and external stakeholders to create a definition more suited to support the agency, the incarcerated population and their loved ones. The workgroup will include internal representation to ensure safety and security measures are addressed, as well as a representative from the Attorney General’s office, representation from the Office of Corrections Ombuds, and local family council representation. The term “sexually explicit” is a definition clearly defined in Washington Administrative Code (WAC), so the final step will be to revise definition and relevant information in the WAC.
Monthly Mailroom Performance Reporting
The DOC agreed to implement monthly data reporting for each facility’s mailroom performance. The data will include rates of rejection by mail staff, types of rejections, rates of appeals, etc. DOC will require these facility mailroom monthly reports in the next revision of DOC 450.100.
The department sincerely appreciates the opportunity to work with the OCO and friends and family members of the incarcerated population housed within DOC facilities to strengthen the processes surrounding mail room operations. The department is committed to continuing this work and ensuring proactive quality assurance reviews to keep strengthening the services that provide connections to support systems in our facilities and in the community.