Gregory Marcinski is 43 and incarcerated at a federal prison in Otisville, New York. His partner Eva lives nearly 4,000 miles away in Bavaria, Germany. They’ve only spent a total of 7 days together during visits. When Eva opens his letters and fingers the stationery she knows he’s held, too, the sensation feels “a bit like holding hands.”
Marcinski has been in prison for almost 20 years, serving two concurrent life sentences in Kentucky and New York for the charge of kidnapping resulting in death. Eva first reached out to him over a prison pen pal website in 2017. The two fell in love through monitored emails and recorded phone calls that cut off after 15 minutes. Letters are their favorite way to communicate.
“Whenever I receive a letter from him, it’s a good day,” Eva, who is also 43, told The Daily Beast. “I keep the letters in their envelopes so they don’t lose their scents.” (She asked that her last name not be printed.)
Even though it’s against prison rules that restrict fragranced stationery, sometimes Eva puts the letters under her pillow for a few nights before sending them across the Atlantic. She says it makes the paper smell like her.
“Perfume is not allowed, but sometimes I do it anyway,” Eva admitted. “Those are the small things you do when you can’t be together.”
Otisville, a medium-security prison with an adjacent satellite campus for non-violent offenders, has the type of illustrious inmate list typical for a facility only 75 miles north of New York. White-collar criminals like Trump fixer Michael Cohen, Fyre Festival’s Billy McFarland, and Jersey Shore’s Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino have all spent time there.
Then there are less famous faces, like Marcinski. Correspondence is one of those few liberties a person does not lose when they enter the system; a 1974 Supreme Court case ruled that prisons cannot censor personal mail, unless it is necessary to “maintain security.”
Marcinski is an amateur journalist. Last month, he reported for the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee on a new procedure implemented at Otisville that restricts inmates from receiving their original mail.
Prison officials claimed that controlled narcotics are entering the prison through letters, so this month they began photocopying all personal mail. The original correspondence is held by security; prisoners only receive a facsimile.
“The introduction of narcotics and other prohibited drugs or controlled substances through the mail continues to pose a threat to the security of Bureau of Prisons’ (BOP) facilities, and to the safety of staff and inmates,” Scott Taylor, a Bureau of Prisons spokesperson, wrote in an email to The Daily Beast. “Wardens may establish controls to protect staff, inmates, and the security, discipline, and good order of the institution by implementing such practices as photocopying all, or a portion of, incoming general correspondence.”
Taylor added that the original mail “is maintained for a minimum of 30 days prior to being destroyed to eliminate the threat of contraband introduction.” Due to “safety and security reasons,” Taylor would not elaborate on where the mail is kept and how it would be destroyed.
According to Taylor, the Bureau of Prisons is “currently exploring” options to have correspondence scanned by an outsourced vendor, with the digital file sent to “kiosks” where inmates can view the documents.
It is a move the feds lifted from the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections’ system. In 2018, the maximum-security United States Penitentiary in Canaan also allegedly dealt with drug smuggling. So staff began redirecting mail to a contractor in Florida called Smart Communications. The mail was copied and scanned over to the prison, where inmates could print it out.
The state’s ACLU branch challenged those restrictions in a lawsuit. Sara Rose, a senior staff attorney at the nonprofit, argued that legal mail between an inmate and attorney should be protected from copying. Now the prison no longer scans that type of correspondence, but personal mail still gets scanned over.
“It’s really hard to believe that people could be so heartless,” Rose said. “Mail is such a small, small part of how drugs get into prisons, so the practice of copying mail [to deter smuggling] seems rather heavy-handed and not justifiable.”
Indeed, a 2018 media study conducted by the think tank Prison Policy Initiative found that “almost all contraband introduced to any local jail comes through staff.”
“All too often, these decisions to ban critical services happen without any compelling evidence to show that incarcerated people or their loved ones are doing anything malicious,” Wanda Bertram, a spokesperson for the Prison Policy Initiative, said.
Anyone writing to a prison already knows they’re being surveilled. But having a letter read once is very different than knowing it could be copied and uploaded to a database. When mail is scanned, it has the potential to be digitally retained by security staff.
As Rose put it, “Who would want to send their three-year-old’s drawing to his dad in prison when it could be scanned and kept in the system forever?”
“People want to retain ties to their communities, because it helps when they’re released,” Rose added. “I think any system that would deter that communication should be looked at very carefully.”
Eva said that the new policy at Otisville “hurts” her and has already changed how she communicates with Marcinski. “Now he gets a copy from my letters or my children’s messages, and it’s just not the same as the real thing,” she said. “When you don’t have much, a handwritten letter can feel like home. A copy… not so much.”
“We’re on modified lockdown… All we can get is mail and the phones, and they’re taking that away too”
Marcinski’s father passed away in 2016. He still has the last letter he sent. It smells smoky, like his dad’s favorite cigarettes. “It’s nice to have and see the ink that he used on that paper,” Marcinski said. “I still treasure that letter. You photocopy it and it loses that essence. It just kind of becomes an email.”
Frank Caraballo, 38, has served nine years in prison on a murder charge. (He maintains his innocence.) Now that the coronavirus pandemic has ended in-person visits, mail remains a critical way to communicate. Restricting access to it now feels especially cruel.
“It’s like bullying us,” Caraballo said. “We’re on modified lockdown—no visits, no video visits, no Skype. All we can get is mail and the phones, and they’re taking that away too. All they’ve been doing is taking, they’re not giving us anything. The reasoning for not allowing video visits is that they don’t have the infrastructure. But they have the infrastructure to start copying mail all of a sudden? I don’t understand that.”
“It makes me feel anxious, man,” Caraballo added. “It gives me some bad anxiety. These people just stress us out over every damn thing.”
Another inmate, 53 year-old Clifford Eaton, is serving a 12-year sentence for conspiracy to distribute methamphetamines. Though legal correspondence is supposed to be exempt from the new policy, Eaton says that a letter sent to him by the US State Attorney’s Office was accidentally copied.
“Prison is becoming more punitive,” Eaton said. “I’ve done a lot of time in my life—I first went to prison in 1986, when I was 19. I’ve seen a lot of changes over the years, and it’s just become a more and more punitive sort of mentality in the way they run prisons.”
One anonymous inmate who asked that his name be withheld for fear of retaliation, added that the copying jobs on original mail looks “sloppy.”
“Pages are cut off, the backside of a page is forgotten so only the front half has been copied, and photos or drawings done by children become blurred or distorted by the process,” he said. “From my experience, little care is taken in handling the copying of the correspondence.”
The inmate called original mail “a direct physical connection” to his loved ones. “As humans we recall memories not just through thought alone, but from sight, taste, touch, smell,” he said. “As such, something as simple as a waft of perfume might transport you to another time and place, and a memory is given new life.”
Marcinski says he took his mail “for granted” before going to prison. “In the real world, junk mail and bills were annoying,” he said. “But now, here, receiving mail is one of the highlights of the day. We all wait for the mail call, and when the officer dumps his bag out on the table the whole unit crowds around waiting for their mail. In here, letters, magazines, newspapers—anything from the outside—is just so meaningful. It’s definitely something to look forward to.”