A group of protesters from two inmate advocacy groups crashed the pomp and circumstance of the state Capitol’s annual Christmas tree lighting Thursday to protest Pennsylvania’s prison mail policy.
The policy was tightened in September after a series of drug smuggling scares. Now, all mail is sent to prisoners by way of a processing facility in Florida, where it is photocopied. Inmates no longer receive the originals.
At the Capitol, the Christmas tree was about to be lit, the lobby was filled with onlookers — including preschool children and a high school choir — and Governor Tom Wolf was giving a speech, when protesters seated in the audience stood up and began calling for Wolf to “have a heart and let us write letters to our loved ones.”
At the top of the rotunda stairs they unfurled a banner that read, “Wolf, don’t be a grinch, end cruel mail policies.”
Wolf plowed through his prepared remarks, and he and First Lady Frances Wolf pressed the ceremonial button to light the Christmas tree without a hitch.
Speaking to reporters afterward, the governor said the mail policy changed for a reason.
“We obviously have a safety problem that affects the prisoners and the staff, and we want to do something about that to keep everybody safe,” he said. “I think we’re trying to do it the right way, and we’re working with different groups to make sure that we protect everybody’s constitutional rights.”
The protesters were from Philadelphia, and are part of the groups Decarcerate PA and the Coalition to Abolish Death by Incarceration.
Lorraine Haw was among them. Her son is 25 years into a life sentence at the State Correctional Institution at Smithfield.
She said she understands many people may not get why photocopied mail is an issue. But for her, it’s huge.
“As a mother, I cry over my mail. I kiss my mail so my baby can feel and smell his mother” she said. “A photocopy can’t do that.”
The mail policy changed after prison staff reported feeling sick after contact with supposed synthetic drugs.
The state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union is suing Pennsylvania for a different component of the policy: the status of legal mail.
It is also photocopied, and the prison retains originals for a short time. The group argues that could allow prison staff to read or tamper with sensitive letters.