In 2021, San Mateo County banned anyone incarcerated in its jails from receiving any physical mail other than attorney communications. Under this new policy, the senders of mail must route their letters to Smart Communications, a private for-profit company, which scans and then destroys the physical copy. The digital copy is stored for a minimum of seven years, even when the intended recipient is released before that time. Incarcerated people are only able to access the digital copies through a limited number of shared tablets and kiosks in public spaces within the jails.
This policy invades the privacy of those imprisoned in the jails and everyone who corresponds with them through physical mail, including family, friends, and religious and support organizations. In addition to the contents of the mail, Smart Communications also collects a variety of other information not directly included in the mail, including details about the sender. And anyone that San Mateo County provides credentials to can access all of this information. Concerns about this invasive surveillance have led many people to stop corresponding by mail altogether, even though countless studies have shown that letter-writing reduces recidivism and increases successful reentries into society upon release.
In March 2023, EFF, along with the Knight First Amendment Institute and Social Justice Legal Foundation, filed a lawsuit against San Mateo County on behalf of incarcerated folks, their nonincarcerated loved ones, and a collective of artists supporting incarcerated members of the LGBTQ community. In our complaint, we argue that this policy violates the First and Fourth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution and the corresponding articles of the California Constitution. We also argue that, as applied to three of our clients, the policy violates the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act by substantially burdening their ability to receive, study, and share religious materials.
Read our press release and complaint here.