Holiday card campaign to Gov. Wolf calls for repeal of Pa.'s new prison mail policy

Listen 1:37
A grinch Governor Wolf appears on a flyer inviting Philadelphians to create holiday cards to send to Governor Wolf asking him to end a DOC policy that doesn’t allow families to send cards of photos to incarcerated family members. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

A grinch Governor Wolf appears on a flyer inviting Philadelphians to create holiday cards to send to Governor Wolf asking him to end a DOC policy that doesn’t allow families to send cards of photos to incarcerated family members. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

An annual card-making event in Philadelphia was filled with holiday cheer, but some people were crafting greetings they say are meant for “a big, bad Wolf.”

Those cards are going to Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf to protest the Department of Corrections’ new mail policy.

Dozens of community members and families worked on holiday cards at the Village of Arts & Humanities in North Philadelphia on Germantown Ave. Some cards are the equivalent of a lump of coal to show the governor they’re upset that state inmates are just getting scanned copies of their mail — after the originals go through a facility in Florida.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

“I hope you get the touch and feel the originality of this card because my loved one won’t, due to your policy for incarcerated men and women,” said Faith Bartley, reading from her card.

The new policy was put in place in August when dozens of staff and inmates fell ill after drug exposure.

An emailed statement from DOC press secretary Amy Worden said, “Mail was the number one path of contraband into facilities and one staff member was sickened while opening mail at one of our facilities.”

The statement also says “drug finds, inmate overdoses and staff exposure reports are all down significantly,” since the new policies have been put in place.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

General mail now first goes to Smart Communications, a sorting facility in Florida, and then inmates receive a scanned copy.

Hannah Zellman, an organizer with Decarcerate PA, says the policy is an arbitrary way to address drug contraband.

“The state opted to have a $15 million dollar contract with a company in Florida,” she said. “There’s no substantiated evidence that drugs were actually coming through in the mail, and the DOC has refused to do an actual investigation into it.”

“We also know that there’s a lot of ways to address substance use disorder inside correctional facilities that don’t include restricting people’s access to communication on the outside,” Zellman said.

She says the DOC could invest in more substance abuse treatment, medication assisted treatment and more random searches and screenings of staff since “we know that the majority of drugs actually come in that way not through visitors and not through mail.”

Mail turnaround time is 24 hours, the DOC notes, and also states inmates can request a letter be rescanned or copied if there’s an issue with the quality.

Former inmate Roslyn Ryder remembers looking forward to getting Christmas cards around the holidays. By the time they reached her, she says cards would have decorations ripped off and glitter scraped away. To get a photocopy, she says, would be even worse.

“It’s cold. So that’s why I’m putting this snowflake on the front of my card,” she said. “I want Governor Wolf to get an idea of how cold it is, or how freezing and bitter cold it is that my family member is incarcerated during the holiday season and … not able to get Christmas cards and things like that sent to them.”

The People’s Paper Co-op, a program of the Village of Arts & Humanities, hosted the event for the 4th year.

Mark Strandquist, co-director of the Co-op, says part of their approach includes looking to former or currently incarcerated women as experts and problem solvers.

“All of them said the reason why drugs are in our facilities is because correctional officers are bringing them in, not because some folks are putting them underneath postage stamps,” he said. “The blame is being put on families and communities where a lot of the reasons why drugs are in the facilities are not their fault.”

Shantay Heaven has three family members incarcerated.

“Then they don’t get to touch an original card or the original pictures. They had to get scanned copies. It’s nothing like feeling something that your child wrote or something that you have sent to them — reading an original letter.”

Heaven, who has two children, is sympathetic to kids in the area who can’t celebrate the holidays with their parents.

“Out here, it’s not a good Christmas for a lot of kids that are not be able to have original contact with their fathers or their mothers in incarceration,” she said.

The cards will be mailed to Harrisburg and delivered to the governor’s Philadelphia office next week.

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal