Low-Profile, Local Liberalization of Prisoners’ Communication

face of a prisoner

From the 1830s, communication between prisoners and family and friends increased through low-profile, local changes in prison rules. Penal reformers early in the nineteenth century were intensely concerned about communication among prisoners. Communication between prisoners and their family and friends was little discussed. These latter ad hoc communication policies varied considerably, but over time became less restrictive. For example, New York’s Sing Sing prison in 1839 was fully suppressing prisoners’ communication with family and friends:

No communications were allowed between the prisoners and their friends, neither personally nor by letter; and so thoroughly was this arrangement carried out that a convict from his commitment to his release was as completely cut off from his family as if dead^

A new administration at Sing Sing in 1840 gave convicts the opportunity to send and receive personal letters and receive personal visits.^ ^ Another change in administration in 1843 cut off prisoners’ personal correspondence and abridged personal visiting. By 1849, prisoners at Sing Sing were again allowed to engage in personal correspondence. Prisoners at the Auburn prison and at least three other state penitentiaries similarly had such communication opportunities.^

U.S. Prisons' Communication Policies About 1870

(% of reporting prisons with given frequency limit)
frequency limitWriting LettersReceiving Visits
Source: see 19th-century prisoner communication in US.
no restriction11%33%
restricted, but more than one per month20%9%
less than monthly, more than bimonthly7%4%
one every three months17%22%
less than one every three months0%0%
reporting prisons4645

More comprehensive evidence from the mid-nineteenth-century shows considerable communication policy variation within the common practice of permitting some communication between prisoners and their families and friends. State prisons in the U.S. about 1870 imposed no frequency restrictions on prisoners receiving letters, but writing letters and meeting with friends and family were subject to frequency restrictions. Prisoners were allowed to write one letter per month in 46% of reporting prisons (mainly state prisons) about 1870. The state prisons in Maine and Missouri allowed prisoners to write at state expense once every three months and monthly, respectively. Prisoners were permitted to write at their expense weekly in Maine and more often than monthly in Missouri. The most constraining regulation on prisoners writing letters to family and friends was one letter allowed every three months. That was the policy in 17% of U.S. state prisons about 1870.

In state prisons about 1870, personal visits with family and friends were permitted at a frequency of one every three months or greater. About a third of reporting state prisons imposed no restrictions on frequency of visits. That was similar to the typically unrestricted communication policy in jails. Lack of restrictions on visiting for some state prisons may reflect the practical difficulty of actually visiting prisoners in relatively remote prisons. While a higher share of prisons allowed unrestricted visiting compared to unrestricted letter writing, restrictions on visiting were not uniformly less stringent than restrictions on writing letters: 22% of prisons restricted personal visits to one every three months, compared to 17% doing so for letter writing. Overall, the pattern of communication liberalization across prisons and across modes of communication was disparate.

Regulation of Writing Letters from U.S. State Prisons About 1912

maximum permitted frequency of writing letters% of states
Note: 48 states reporting. Source: see prisoner communication early in 20th century.
unlimited letter writing17%
3-5 letters per month42%
1-2 letters per month40%
1 letter per 2 months2%
less than 1 letter per 2 months0%

Liberalization of prisoners’ communication with family and friends has continued through to the present. By 1912, state prisons in 59% of U.S. states allowed prisoners to write three or more letters per month. Eight states did not restrict the number of letters that prisoners could write. Virginia, the most restrictive state, limited prisoners to writing no more than one letter every two months. Prisons in eleven states divided prisoners into different classes and regulated communication differently for the different classes of prisoners. This class-based regulation often differentiated between being allowed to write one letter per month and being allowed to write two or four letters per month. That structure of regulation suggests that such differences mattered to prisoners. Prisoners in the U.S. in 1912 typically were allowed to write letters five to ten times as frequently as they were allowed about 1870.

Prisoners’ opportunities to correspond and visit in person with family and friends continued to increase across the twentieth century. In 1971, 58% of U.S. state prisons allowed prisoners to send an unlimited number of letters. Among those same prisons in 1981, the share limiting letters from prisoners to less than eight per week fell from 37% to 3%. Prisoners were also allowed more frequent visits from family and friends. In 1956, U.S. prisons typically allowed family and friends to visit prisoners twice per month. Only 6% allowed at least five visits per month. In 1981, 75% of state prisons allowed at least five visits per month. By 1987, 35% of U.S. state prisons allowed prisoners to receive visits daily. Eastern State Penitentiary, a leading early model for attempting to suppress completely prisoners’ communication, in 1970 was allowing inmates to receive an unlimited number of letters.

Communication Policies in U.S. State Prisons, 1956-2005

in given year, prisoners allowed to:19561971198119912005
Sources: see US prisoner communication policies since 1956.
receive at least five visits per month6%56%75%76%62%
send at least eight letters per week63%97%99%99%
receive at least eight letters per week97%100%99%99%
receive telephone calls38%44%33%12%
make telephone calls14%94%90%82%
make more than three phone calls each month7%66%86%82%
number of prisons surveyed112646691162

Extending telephone service to prisoners was a relatively late development in the U.S. About a third of U.S. households in 1920 had telephone service. By 1970, 85% of households had telephone service. However, in 1971, all U.S. prisons surveyed did not allow prisoners to receive ordinary telephone calls. Prisoners in 86% of prisons in 1971 were not allowed to make any ordinary telephone calls. In U.S. federal prisons in the 1970s, prisoners were allowed to make one call every three months.^ Telephone service for prisoners expanded rapidly in the 1970s. In 2005, 82% of prisons allowed prisoners to make more than three phone calls per month.

Administrative rules in most prisons in the U.S. today no longer directly constrain the frequency of communicating with most prisoners. In 2005, about two-thirds of prisons allowed prisoners to receive at least five visits per month. Prisoners on average actually received about three visits per month. Almost all prisons allowed prisoners to send and receive at least eight letters per week. Prisoners on average actually sent and received four letters per week.^ Most prisons do not restrict the number of telephone calls that a prisoner can make.

Factors other than direct administrative rules have become the most important constraints on the frequency of prisoners’ communication with their families and friends. The quantity, quality, and practice of prisoners’ personal relationships affect the extent of communication through letters, visits, and telephone calls. Prisoners’ education affects their ability to communicate through letters. Travel costs and visiting arrangements affect the total cost and value of in-person visits to prisoners. Telephone calling rates and telephone use queuing affect the amount of prisoners’ telephone use. Different communication technologies such as text messaging and video conferencing offer different types of communication. The range of communication services available to prisoners affects their communication relative to communication now typical for persons not incarcerated.

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