Letter from a Niantic Prison
Except for the one on Soprano’s desk, all prison envelopes bear the same stamp on the back: “This correspondence originated from an inmate at a Connecticut Correctional Facility,” a warning that the mailroom staff could easily shorten to: “IGNORE.” If Alabama’s Department of Correction imprinted this type of advisory on its inmate envelopes over fifty years ago when Martin Luther King, Jr. mailed his esteemed “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” no one would have ever opened the fucking thing.
You would pass over prisoner mail too, if you received it, just like everyone else does. We understand our confinement neutralizes us. We cannot call you or even alight your doorstep to pitch a bitch fit or, even worse, go totally postal on you with an illegal firearm. What hurts more than being ignored by people on the outside is what the guards do to your letters inside the facility. Mail tampering is as central to the penal experience as a lock or a lousy mattress. I still wonder how King got his letter out to the clergymen at all.
Addressed to my father, the envelope that Soprano and his investigator plopped in front of me lacked the mark of the prison’s mailroom. The commissary makes mistakes sometimes and misses one envelope they sell. The mailroom would have mindlessly stamped the missive’s wrapper and freed it to the United States Postal Service if any other inmate’s name and inmate number appeared in the upper left corner, but mine? Mine beckoned a formal investigation.
“Commissary. I got it from commissary,” I confessed. In any prison, the commissary is the lone legit game in town. It was the only place I knew to buy an envelope. It was the only place any prisoner could buy an envelope.
“Well, we called them and they said they don’t sell stamped envelopes.” Soprano lowered his gaze at me as if he had trapped me.
“Aren’t you calling me in because this one doesn’t have a stamp on it?” I asked. Soprano and Co. said nothing. “Uh… stamped envelopes are the only kind of envelopes they sell… Aren’t you in charge of the mailroom?” I couldn’t believe I was explaining the innards of the mailroom to the corrections captain charged with running it.
“Well, if that’s the case, do you have receipts for them?” he challenged me.
“Yeah, actually, I do, back in my cell.”
Soprano looked surprised and sent me off to fetch. As I pushed through the double-glass doors of the administration building I weighed which was worse: the reality that people slight inmates by not slitting open their letters or the fact that every piece of mail a prisoner either sends or receives will be tampered with. Inside, Big Brother does more than watch, listen and read; he also rips, steals, chucks, defaces, alters, meddles with and corrupts a prisoner’s correspondence which – in lieu of expensive collect calls or cattle-call personal visits – is often the only gate a prisoner can use legally, the only portal to the outside world.
Correctional mail tampering is so pervasive and so old that even the United States Supreme Court acknowledged it over twenty-five years ago in its decision in a case called Houston vs. Lack. Way back then, the highest court in the country found that prisoner mail was so unfailingly fooled with that they established what we call “the prisoner mailbox rule,” law that states that legal mail sent by an inmate to a court is deemed filed the day that the inmate drops the letter in the prisoner mail receptacle, rather than on the day the court receives it, because inmates correspondence was so rampantly and severely delayed by prison staff.
As I walked back to my unit, I counted the molestations that my personal or “social” mail had withstood: a guard opened another letter to my father and inserted two pornographic pics, my People magazine arrives with a crossword completed in pencil even though is easy enough to use ink, another guard labeled my mail “Not in this unit” and tossed it in the trash, I received one issue of a 26-week subscription to Sports Illustrated. There were so many that I couldn’t even sort the mail problems in my memory.
The problems with my legal mail were much more serious. Like me, many inmates represent themselves either because they can’t afford a lawyer and do not want to burden their families financially or they have already experienced attorney assistance and it’s the reason they’re in the can. Sometimes courts appoint attorneys in habeas corpus petitions – proceedings to secure someone’s release from custody – but the inmate must timely file the initial petition herself before an lawyer takes the case. The reliability of the prison Pony Express is vital to the self-represented inmate; the mail is sometimes the only way to send yourself home.
When I experienced severe delays with my legal mail in 2009, early on in my sentence when I still believed that upper-level management positions in government were occupied by people who gave a shit, I filed a grievance and hoped that official channels would route my envelopes more accurately because a prison grievance is supposed to be like someone on the outside saying: “I want to speak with your supervisor”; it should be the death knell for bureaucratic bullshit. But, per usual, things work differently for prisoners; it’s not a death knell for bullshit but its baptism. The grievance coordinator rejected my complaint outright, replying that the prison had the right to review my mail.
I never disputed their licensed invasions of the mail; my beef was that the delay incurred by the review was unreasonable and unlawful. I wrote this on a request form and sent it to the grievance coordinator but never heard back even though the request form didn’t have the “This correspondence orginated…” stamp to tell her to trash it.
The next time I experienced a severe delay with my mail was when the clerk of Connecticut’s Appellate Court didn’t receive certain documents I mailed for over six months. So I filed another grievance.
Within two days the grievance coordinator, Officer No Brains, appeared in my housing unit with her muscle, Officer Brawn from the prison’s alleged “Intelligence Unit,” three or four thugs wearing fabric badges and penchants for gossip, which they call ‘intelligence.”
“Bozelko, this is your official warning that if you file another complaint about the mail we’ll ban you permanently from the grievance system… for abuse.”
“How am I abusing the system?” I challenged them.
“Read your handbook. Repeat complaints about the same problem are abuse.” Officer Brawn informed me.
“But I grieved two separate incidents. It’s the same problem but different instances of it,” I explained to blank stares.
“They’re both about mail,” the No Brains told me, her eyes slitted with condescension.
Instructing people who have power over you is a dicey situation. You never want them to think that you think you know more than they do but, in prison, underlings usually know more than the brass. So I tread with both persistence and caution to break this Brawn-and-No Brains stalemate.
“So one grievance about mail prevents another grievance about mail, even if one alleges that the mail policy is wrong and the other complains about mail tampering? They’re not the same thing,” I said.
Officer Brawn explained the entire situation, simply, in three words.
“We’ll ban you.”
“OK. Just ban me then.”
No Brains and Brawn looked at me incredulously. They weren’t of their minds for doing so: I admit that my response was unusual. But Brawn et al. failed to understand that it was also strategic. Unlike many inmates who do not take the time to familiarize themselves with the facility’s own rules and procedures, I actually read the Inmate Handbook distributed at admission. And from reading it I knew that any ban entailed an affirmative showing of abuse to the warden; they would have to show him my complaints. I figured that any foray into the alleged abuse for the big, bad ban would reveal the content of my complaint, thereby apprising the warden of my mail problem which he would then solve.
No Brains never sought to ban me but I still stopped grieving my continuing mail problems anyway. Now instead I just swear out affidavits attesting to the date I mailed the envelope and lean back on the Supreme Court and their mailbox rule, the only guideline that really protects all those envelopes stamped in block black capitals that they originate in a prison.
When I reached the unit, I grabbed a stack of commissary receipts – counteracting mail tampering is expensive in the joint – brought them back to the administrative building and handed them to Soprano in the hallway outside his office so he could examine them.
“Huh… stamped envelopes,” Soprano read off the laser-printed page. He seemed legit stumped.
“That’s the only kind of envelope they sell. I told you.” I pointed to the proper lines on the receipt. This ‘investigation’ was one of two things: either it was proof that Captain Soprano was the most incompetent civil servant I had ever encountered – a tough contest to win, especially among Department of Correction personnel – or this was pure harassment because there was no way that Soprano didn’t know what kind of envelopes the prison used and that I got mine from commissary; those were the only two choices given the titanic idiocy of the whole scene.
“Can I take a copy of this and then close out the investigation?” Soprano asked me as if he needed prisoner permission to do anything. Soprano’s soldiers had tampered with and confiscated my paperwork for years, now the boss was asking me if he could take a copy of a document that was already in the prison’s database of what I had purchased from the commissary. The whole situation was simple-minded yet complex in its confusion: I had to prove that I bought a stamped envelope when mine wasn’t stamped. It seemed like a logical impossibility except I had just done it. I shook my head and shrugged.
“Sure, go ahead. Seal it up.”