People in custody continue to have rights under the First Amendment of the Constitution to maintain contact with the outside world. These rights can, however, be limited, with greater restrictions allowed when someone has been convicted. We continue to fight for people in custody to have greater access to communication and materials.
More information about incarcerated people’s right to communicate with the outside world can be found in The Jailhouse Lawyers’ Manual.
If you or a person in custody has problems with their right to communicate: people in custody in either the City jails or the State prisons should file a grievance about each incident and should appeal each grievance to the highest level.
People in custody in New York City can also call 311 with complaints, but they should also complete the grievance process.
You also can join coalitions with us to fight to change the way the prison-industrial complex makes money off people in custody and imposes limits on incarcerated people’s access to the outside world such as Worth Rises.
Calls with a Person in a New York City Jail
People in jail in NYC are entitled to make free calls to family and friends, whether they are being held pre-trial or serving a sentence. Unfortunately, telephone use in the jails still has some limits. People held in general population and most forms of restrictive housing can make 21 minutes of calls every three hours to anywhere in the United States, including U.S. territories, and the limit on any single call is 15 minutes. People held in punitive segregation are permitted only one 15-minute call per day. Other restrictions on phone use—such as limiting who someone can call—should only happen after the person in custody is given written notice and an opportunity to object.
Calls with a Person in New York State Prison
People who have been convicted of crimes and are in New York State prisons do not receive free phone calls. Phone privileges can be restricted for days, months or even years as part of a sentence to restrictive housing, such as solitary confinement or in administrative segregation.
People in prison are required to make collect calls to the person receiving the calls. This means that the person receiving the call has to have an account with the phone provider, which in New York State is Securus Technologies. To get more information about them and how to set up an account, you can visit their website. In the meantime, the person in prison must ask their counselor (Offender Rehabilitation Coordinator) to put someone’s number on their approved phone list. You can get more information about the prison’s rules about phone calls here.
Monitoring of Calls in the City Jails and State Prisons
Calls made from jails and prison are subject to monitoring, and the privacy rights of the person receiving the call are unfortunately invaded in many ways. Prison officials have many sophisticated tools that they can use to listen to calls, which have important consequences for communication with family and friends. People should keep the following in mind when talking to someone in custody:
People in custody have the right to correspond with their friends and loved ones.
Mail in New York City Jails
In the NYC jails, free postage is provided for two letters per week (and for all legal mail). There is generally no restriction on the amount of mail an incarcerated person can send or receive.
Outgoing mail from the jails is not ordinarily searched, read, or censored, although it can be opened on order of a warden or if there is warrant. Incoming mail to the NYC jails is only supposed to be opened in the presence of the incarcerated person. It should not ordinarily be read or censored, but it can be if there is a warrant or if the warden can articulate a basis for doing so based on security. In the jails, written notice and a statement of the reasons why the mail is being read should be given to the incarcerated person and to the person who sent the mail. There are limits on what can be prohibited or censored: mail cannot be censored simply because administrators disagree with its content or because it is critical of jail officials.
You can read more about the mail policies in city jails in the Department of Correction directive governing Correspondence, including the circumstances under which mail can be read or searched.
Privileged mail—like mail to and from lawyers, courts, public officials, physicians, clergy, media, law enforcement agencies, and agencies like the Board of Correction and the State Commission of Correction—is governed by different rules.
Mail in New York State Prisons
Restrictions are greater for convicted persons in NYS prisons. People in prison have to pay to send mail (except to attorneys or courts). Outgoing mail is not ordinarily searched, read, or censored, although it can be opened on order of the superintendent or if there is warrant.
Incoming mail to the prisons has to have a return name and address in the corner of the envelope. It is opened outside the presence of the incarcerated person and is inspected for contraband. Incoming mail to jail or to prisons is not supposed to be read or withheld, but it can be if there is a warrant or if the warden or Superintendent can articulate a basis for doing so based on security. You and the person in custody should get notice this is occurring unless a determination has been made that doing so would interfere with an ongoing investigation. That means that neither you nor the person you are writing to in prison may know that your mail is being read. There are definitely limits on what can be prohibited or censored: mail cannot be limited simply because administrators disagree with its content or because it is critical of prison officials. While the quantity of enclosures being sent can be restricted, the type of enclosure cannot be limited because of its source, including the internet.
You can learn more the prisons’ rules for mail here.
NYS DOCCS is starting a pilot email program. More information about the program, including its costs, can be found at the Department’s website.
Privileged mail to lawyers, courts and rape crisis counselors have different rules.
You can send packages to people in NYC jails and NYS prisons. Both jails and prisons have limits on the amount and kinds of items you can send, and it is important that you check the rules before sending any package to a person in custody.
Packages in New York City Jails
The rules about sending packages to people in NYC jails can be found here. Packages are supposed to be delivered to incarcerated people within 72 hours of the time that the Department of Correction receives it.
Unlike mail, all packages are searched. If an item in a package is confiscated, written notice and a statement of the reasons why the item was confiscated should be given to the incarcerated person and to the Board of Correction, an agency that oversees the city jails. Note: you cannot send money to a person in a city jail in cash form, but you can send money orders or cashier’s checks. For more information about sending money to a person in custody, learn more here.
Packages in the New York State Prisons
The rules about sending packages to people in NYS prisons can be found here.
The New York State prison system has already tried to limit packages so that items can only be sent to people in custody by family or friends if ordered from a “secure vendor.” This is extremely costly to friends and families and imposes severe limits on what can be sent to incarcerated people. We spearheaded the fight to stop this practice, but it is possible that prison officials will try to impose similar restrictions in the future. Please contact the Prisoners’ Rights Project if you hear of or experience any such restriction on packages.
Books/Newspapers/Printed Materials in New York City Jails
In the New York City jails, there are no limits on the number of publications a person in custody can receive, but incoming publications are searched as part of the package policy. Materials coming into prison can’t be censored because officials disagree with the view being expressed. Access can only be limited to materials that jeopardize prison safety or security, describe how to build weapons, or instruct people on how to escape or break the law, or contain explicit pornography. Restrictions can’t be arbitrary and should be narrowly tailored. If jail officials do censor some or all of a publication, written notice and a statement of the reasons why the item was censored should be given to the incarcerated person and to the Board of Correction, an agency that oversees the city jails.
Books/Newspapers/Printed Materials in New York State Prisons
In NYS prisons, all media coming into a prison will be reviewed by a media review committee. That includes the small number of pages that can be sent at one time from the internet. The person sending the material and the person receiving it should be given notice that something is being censored or rejected and the reason why. The person can appeal the decision to the Central Office Media Review Committee.
Information on sending media to people in NYS DOCCS prisons can be found here.
The information in this document has been prepared by The Legal Aid Society for informational purposes only and is not legal advice. This information is not intended to create, and receipt of it does not constitute, an attorney-client relationship. You should not act upon any information without retaining professional legal counsel.
Last Updated: 6 November 2019
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